EDITORIAL: Aurora, RTD, everyone must get on board for real mass transit answers

More time and more marketing will certainly fill some seats, but the problem is clearly more far-reaching and systemic

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this editorial made it unclear that parking fees are only at the Iliff station in Aurora, and that the $9 charge on the R Line is for travel outside of the zone, which would apply to trips to downtown Denver and Auraria Campus.

Sure, everybody has to get on board metro-Aurora mass transit and light-rail, but with so much to lose right now, and so much to gain, Aurora is going to have to take the driver’s seat.

The Regional Transportation District last week backed off of threats to substantially cut service on the nascent Aurora light rail R Line, which opened just months ago.

While even packed trains and buses pay only a portion of what it actually costs to build and operate light rail and other mass transit, RTD sets its own minimum for ridership and service.

RTD said that the new R Line shows only an average of about 41 boardings per hour, pretty well under their stated minimum of 67 boardings per hour.

After decades of consternation and billions of dollars going into a regional light-rail system, we built it, and they didn’t come. Yet.

That’s the city, which has noisily and successfully fought back against the proposed cuts, has said it’s too soon to cut.

Aurora officials and area RTD board representative Bob Broom say its far too soon to consider cuts, and that RTD needs to do more to advertise the new service and hold off on service changes for at least two years.

We agree.

More time and more marketing will certainly fill some seats, but the problem is clearly more far-reaching and systemic.

The biggest problem is that the single-Aurora light rail line is only a piece of the commuting puzzle for Aurora residents. The R Line essentially allows access only to downtown Denver, Park Meadows Mall, Anschutz and to a connection to Denver International Airport.

Those are important and strategic destinations, but like most of the metro area, the vast majority of Front Range residents don’t visit those places daily.

And even if they do, few live within walking distance of R Line train stations, or any other.

It means riders must walk, bike, taxi or drive to a station. Despite recent improvements, biking is a marginal choice. Driving means added expense of parking. Ideally, a quick RTD bus ride to the train station and beyond would fill every seat on every train. But RTD’s bus system is far from ideal. For most parts of Aurora, it’s impractical if not impossible to pull off.

And then there’s the expense. The round-trip R-Line cost of $9,  to get out of the restrictive “regional” penalty, plus parking ($3 at the Iliff Station) and possibly a bus fee is unrealistic for most retail, food-industry and service job employees. It’s a hardship for many people with better paying jobs. And for those who can afford it, getting to and from train stations is just too inconvenient.

So who’s solving these problems?

“It’s not just an Aurora issue, it’s a metropolitan issue,” Hogan said.

He’s right about that and wrong to believe RTD will soon fix this. The city needs to create its own marketing push for the R Line, pressing RTD to do the same. The city needs to find a way to solve the problem of easily getting people to and from train stations, and push RTD to do the same. The city needs to press RTD for improved bus service and reduced fares, and RTD needs to create those goals and achieve them.

Metro Denver’s light rail system wasn’t created as a lark or part of a public bus system for people too poor to buy cars. It’s all part of a visionary transportation system that will make metro commuting safer, faster, easier and better for our air and environment. If RTD and public officials treat it like an amusement park ride, it won’t ever become more than that.

Everyone, including the public, needs to accept that starting R Line train service was just the beginning of real mass transit in Aurora, not the end. We all need to act on that.