Vision for the future

Blind mom, doctoral student wants a seat at the RTD table to help guide metro transportation district into offering more light rail, better service for able and disabled riders

Her world is dark, so little surprises are in store for Claudia Folska every day.
She picks out clothes without being able to see the colors, and when she opens the refrigerator, she randomly selects weeknight meals.

As she rides blindly through the adventure of life, there’s one thing she knows she can almost always count on: the buses and trains of the Regional Transportation District.

Claudia Folska

“I love RTD,” said Denver resident Folska, 48, who moved to Colorado from California about a decade ago. “I moved here for it, and my life depends on it. I can’t be all that I am, do all that I do, and try to be a great mom, without it.”

Her passion for the public transportation system was the motivation for deciding to enter the race for RTD Board of Directors, District E, which includes Denver, Aurora, Greenwood Village and Centennial.
Bill McMullen, who is term-limited, is currently representing District E.

Folska announced her intentions to run for board member on Feb. 10 and so far is the only candidate in the non-partisan race.

“It just occurred to me that I don’t see people like me in positions of leadership, anywhere. Instead of being disgruntled and discouraged, I need to put some skin in the game and make a change,” she said.
Folska lost her sight at age 5. But being blind hasn’t hindered her from single-handedly raising a 15-year-old girl, earning a dual doctorate degree, and having a potent sense of humor.

She jokes that if she were to somehow regain her eyesight, she’d become a taxi driver to make up for lost driving time.

Folska is currently completing degrees in architecture, planning and cognitive science at the University of Colorado. She’s spent years paying attention to nuances in the public transportation system and studying how blind people navigate cities.

“People with disabilities make up 20 percent of our population,” she said. “I don’t have a choice to drive, I always use public transit. People with disabilities should be at the table, and I haven’t found them to be.”

Folska is entering the race at a troublesome time for the financially beleaguered RTD system. RTD officials last year debated asking taxpayers for a second tax increase to finish the FasTracks project, but decided the economic climate was too tumultuous.

If Folska were to win the RTD election in November, she said she’d work to improve efficiencies across RTD, reduce the cost of operations to make room for financial improvements on FasTracks light rail projects and buses, and certainly fix problems in the system she’s noticed.

“Maybe we can take lessons learned from blind navigation into building the best transit system America or anybody has ever seen,” she said.

One of her priorities would be to improve the placement of “curb cuts,” the cement ramps on the sidewalk that are wheelchair accessible.

She said curb cuts are sometimes placed in odd areas, like directly in front of the door of a light rail, where a person has to climb a few stairs to get on the vehicle.

“Why would you need that there? Nobody in the wheelchair is going to go up the stairs,” Folska said.
She also wants the emergency telephones at bus and light rail stations to have audible sounds to alert a blind person to their location.

But she said she wants to make RTD better for all riders. She’s adamant that if she were to represent District E, she wouldn’t solely fight for those with disabilities.

“I will advocate for all people,” she said. “That just happens to include people with disabilities.”
Folska, who owns a computer that speaks to her, has set up a blog on her website at Claudia4RTD.com where residents in District E can post their thoughts about the transportation district.

“What I really want to do is start a dialogue,” she said. “I know my experiences about RTD, and I’d love to hear other people’s stories about RTD.”

In addition to finishing her dissertation and running for RTD board member, she’s also juggling a few other projects. She’s in the pre-production stages of a show called “Cooking in the Dark: Connecting Communities Through Yummy Food,” which is set to air on PBS in the near future.

But talking about RTD is what gets Folska revved up most.

“I think it’s hot. I think it’s groovy. It’s got a rhythm,” she said. “And the drivers of the buses and operators of the trains are just cool people.”

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or sara@aurorasentinel.com.