Metro Denver voters will fill seven seats on the Regional Transportation District’s board in the Nov. 3 election — likely thrusting a mix of new and returning officials into arguably the least enviable positions in local government these days.
They will join a 15-member Board of Directors that is guiding the transit agency through its biggest crisis in decades, as the coronavirus pandemic has sent ridership plunging and blown sizable holes in its budget. The triage likely will continue well into the next term, even as board members and RTD officials, including incoming CEO and General Manager Debra Johnson, hope to map out new strategies to grow ridership. They also will need to weigh equity challenges and reckon with RTD’s unfulfilled rail promises in some parts of the district.
All the while, the agency is facing intense scrutiny from state officials, community leaders and an outside advisory committee that’s undertaking a top-to-bottom review of the agency.
“This is a defining time for RTD,” said Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds. The agency’s success or failure will have a bearing on challenges as far-reaching as traffic congestion, economic development and climate change.
“I’m very interested in breaking Denver’s dependence on cars,” said Hinds, who represents neighborhoods in central Denver that are among the most heavily dependent on public transportation. “Obviously, ensuring that we have reliable, frequent, cost-effective transit is a critical component to that.”
Three incumbents are in contested races to represent RTD board districts that cover central and east Denver, several south suburbs and far-southeastern reaches that include Parker. Another incumbent is running unopposed, while three newcomers — including a couple former elected officials — face no competition in open seats, guaranteeing wins.
An eighth position was supposed to be on the ballot, but no candidate qualified. The director for District I, which stretches from Longmont to Broomfield, will be appointed by the Boulder County commissioners since a plurality of that district’s voters live there.
RTD’s board, with 15 hands on the steering wheel, is one of just a few elected bodies to oversee large transit agencies in the United States. Its directors are limited to two four-year terms.
On questionnaires submitted to The Denver Post, most of this year’s dozen candidates were sympathetic to the tough budget decisions being considered by the current board, including layoffs and pay cuts for management.
But ideas varied widely for how to put RTD on a stronger footing and improve transit quality across a service area that covers 2,342 square miles, the nation’s largest transit footprint. More than than 3 million people live within RTD’s boundaries.
One race illustrates differing ideas
The three-person race for District H, which stretches from Cherry Hills Village to Highlands Ranch, illustrates the broad range of perspectives.
Director Doug Tisdale, whose four years on the board have included two as its chair, is optimistic RTD will weather the pandemic and find new strength as it tries out new modes of providing service, beyond just buses and trains. Tisdale, 71, is an attorney and former mayor of Cherry Hills Village.
“I have no idea how long our present circumstances will continue — I have no idea whether a vaccine will magically flip a switch,” he said, to cause ridership to recover from its 60% decline amid the pandemic. But, he added, “we are going to have a reenvisioned normal,” and RTD must adapt.
In the race, Tisdale’s position is a sort of middle ground.
Regan Byrd, one of two challengers, wants RTD to think more boldly and says she’d bring much-needed perspectives as a frequent transit rider and social justice activist. She said RTD shouldn’t be afraid to ask voters to approve a modest increase to its 1% sales tax, or another source of revenue, to rescue the budget. Then it should work to grow ridership, she said, by expanding service on its bus routes and train lines, while making them more affordable.
“I would push extremely hard for those ideas,” said Byrd, 33, who lives in Littleton and describes herself as an anti-racism educator, trainer and consultant.
But for Roger Edwards, a former corporate logistics manager who started his own trucking company, the way to solve RTD’s problems is to operate it more like a business. He puts the focus on a need for more efficiency and says he’d provide greater accountability on the board.
“The mission of RTD is going to have to be more narrowly defined if they have any chance of stopping the bleeding with their finances,” said Edwards, 70, who lives in Highlands Ranch.
Other contested races
Two other districts have competition:
- In District A, which includes central and east Denver, Director Kate Williams, who works as the executive director of a transit nonprofit, is seeking a second term. She faces Kyle Bradel, 35, a ride-share driver, and Tim Nelson, 33, a teacher.
- In District G, which includes Parker, Lone Tree and part of Centennial, Director Ken Mihalik, 40, an aerospace subcontract manager who lives in Parker, is seeking a second term against Julien Bouquet, 26, a teacher who lives in Lone Tree.
Former mayor and lawmaker will join board
The four unopposed candidates include Director Bob Broom, 82, a retired investment banker who will serve a second term in Aurora-based District F. Newcomer Bobby Dishell, 27, a law clerk who lives in Denver, will represent District D, which includes south Denver, Englewood and Sheridan.
Marjorie Sloan, 76, finished her final of two terms as Golden’s mayor in January. She is unopposed for District M, which also includes portions of Lakewood and Wheat Ridge.
“I think I can bring the voice of localities to the board,” Sloan said, adding about RTD’s problems: “There is no one person who is going to figure this out, so I’m glad it’s a large board with a lot of people on it. And I appreciate the governor’s oversight committee, because I think they can add a lot of valuable insights.”
Also joining the board is Paul Rosenthal, 52, a teacher and three-term Democratic state representative in southeast Denver who failed to qualify for the 2018 primary after facing sexual harassment accusations that he disputed. He’s unopposed for District E, which also covers parts of Aurora and Greenwood Village.