Chase Woodruff

(Colroado Newsline) Lawmakers are poised to give Colorado’s public transit agencies more flexibility in how they use funds from a state program for free rides during periods of high ozone pollution.

Following the launch of the Ozone Season Transit Grant Program last year, House Bill 23-1101 would make a variety of changes sought by transit agencies and local governments from around the state, including the ability to carry over state funding from year to year and to spend some of it on public-awareness campaigns. It would also allow agencies in locations that struggle with air pollution outside of the traditional summer smog seasons to use the funds at different times of the year.

Democrats in the Colorado House of Representatives gave final approval to HB-1101 on Thursday in a 44-18 vote. State Rep. Rick Taggart of Grand Junction was the lone Republican to vote in favor of the bill, which heads next to the state Senate.

“Breaking down barriers to accessing public transit, including financial barriers, is a great way to get transit-curious Coloradans aboard our buses and trains,” state Rep. Stephanie Vigil, a Democrat from Colorado Springs and a bill sponsor, said in a statement. “This legislation would improve the Ozone Season Transit Grant Program so more folks can take advantage of free rides.”

Democrats passed $28 million in funding for free transit in the 2022 legislative session, authorizing the program for three years. State leaders had initially aimed for the program to cover free rides for a period of several months, but pared the initiative back to 30 days amid hesitancy from officials with Denver’s Regional Transportation District, who cited concerns about safety and staffing shortages.

For decades, the north Front Range region has been out of compliance with federal health standards for ozone, a hazardous air pollutant that poses a variety of health risks and peaks in the summer months.

RTD, by far Colorado’s largest transit system, launched its month-long “Zero Fare for Better Air” initiative last August and reported a significant rise in ridership — a 21% increase from the month before and a 36% jump from the previous August. More than a dozen other agencies across the state also reported increased ridership, according to a report from the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies.