Boulder County would receive $34 million in pandemic relief funding instead of RTD under a tentative deal to resolve the agency’s dispute with the Colorado Department of Transportation over suspended commuter bus routes, a county official confirmed Tuesday.
The agreement, if finalized, would spur along discussions between the Regional Transportation District and Boulder County communities about restoring Flatiron Flyer routes and Longmont express buses to downtown Denver. It’s unclear when that would happen, and the county would have the flexibility to provide the money to RTD to underwrite the services — or seek out alternative partners, said Kathleen Bracke, deputy director of transportation planning in Boulder County’s Community Planning and Permitting Department.
She said many details remain to be worked out but RTD, CDOT and the county have settled on an “agreed-upon approach.” Bracke has taken part in the talks in her county job, but she also is an appointee on the Colorado Transportation Commission, which oversees CDOT.
Neither RTD nor CDOT disputed her characterization.
“The idea is that the funding would come to Boulder County, and we would work in partnership and in collaboration — and those are two really key words — with RTD, with CDOT, with the Federal Transit Administration and, very importantly, with the communities in Boulder County,” Bracke said.
Though CDOT would need federal approval in coming days to divert the money away from RTD, spokesman Matt Inzeo said Tuesday that RTD and Boulder County have been the main players in discussions about a resolution.
RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said the goal has been collaboration.
“I would just say it’s premature for us to respond,” she said. “It really has been an effort of all of us to work together.”
RTD has prioritized routes serving more transit-dependent areas in its decisions to restore services that it suspended during the pandemic last year. Agency officials also have cited a longstanding driver and operator shortage as a factor limiting its ability to restore more routes, including several Flatiron Flyer lines.
But this month, CDOT seized on the pandemic aid as a potential bargaining chip, since the money was earmarked by the federal government for Boulder County communities under the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed earlier this year.
RTD was set to receive a total of $338 million in transit aid allocations from that package, but the money was divided up geographically by urban area. Some of the smaller portions pass through CDOT first before being assigned to RTD — including a $34.2 million chunk that’s based on three Boulder County communities’ populations.
On Oct. 19, CDOT executive director Shoshana Lew sent a letter to Debra Johnson, RTD’s general manager and CEO. She told Johnson that she would pass the money to the transit agency, as CDOT usually does, only if it agreed to use it to restore two Flatiron Flyer routes (the FF2 and FF4) and Longmont’s LX1 and LX2 express routes. The Flyer routes would supplement the currently running FF1 route and limited service on two other routes.
In recent months, Boulder County elected officials have protested the lack of current service on its commuter-heavy corridors.
CDOT joined in the chorus in part because the express lanes were added to U.S. 36 during a major highway overhaul in the last decade, and RTD agreed to use those lanes to provide more express bus service to northwest communities.
RTD’s ridership is still down, especially among commuters to downtown jobs. In September a new batch of restorations brought service up to 70% of pre-pandemic levels, and the agency says it plans to ratchet that up to 85% next year.
But the operator shortages are a chief roadblock. On Tuesday night, the board is set to vote on a January service proposal that includes minor changes to current routes — but no further restorations yet.