Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) Though a detailed report on the ridership impacts of a state-funded free-fare program on Colorado’s largest transit system won’t be available until next month, officials with the Regional Transportation District say the early signs are positive.

RTD’s Zero Fare for Better Air program, established by state lawmakers to encourage alternatives to car travel during the peak summertime ozone season, ended on Thursday after offering two months of free rides to residents and visitors in the Denver area.

“RTD welcomed many new customers to its system during Zero Fare for Better Air,” general manager Debra Johnson said in a statement. “The agency focused this year’s campaign on creating a welcoming transit environment that encouraged individuals in the Denver metro area to discover new commuting habits and explore sustainable transportation options. Early indications point to successes with the initiative, and I am eager to review the final report and learn more about the impact of this year’s program.”

Administered by the Colorado Energy Office, the program expanded in 2023 to a total of 16 local transit agencies that participated, many of which increased their number of free-fare months to two or three throughout the summer, up from just one month in 2022.

RTD saw a 36% year-over-year jump in ridership during its free-fare August last year, an increase that Democratic state Sen. Faith Winter, chair of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee and a key supporter of the program, called a “fantastic” result. Agency officials, who had resisted a summer-long program due to staffing and safety concerns, wrote in a report last fall that the initiative “did not yield significant operating impacts, nor did it lead to a major increase in quality of life or crime incidents on RTD services.”

The expanded 2023 program was in effect for what RTD says was its busiest weekend ever on July 14 and 15, when buses and trains were packed with riders traveling to and from two nights of Taylor Swift concerts and Colorado Rockies vs. New York Yankees baseball games. Though more details will be included in its report later this year, the free fares again appear to have had little impact on safety, RTD said.

“Early reports indicate that RTD did not see a large increase in crimes or security-related incidents reported to the agency during the zero-fare initiative in July and August,” the agency said in a press release.

Officials from Mountain Metropolitan Transit, the agency serving Colorado Springs, said this week that its system had broken ridership records while offering free transit from June through August, and other transit agencies across the state have reported similar successes, The Colorado Sun reported.

But the two years of funding for the program authorized by Senate Bill 22-180, passed by Democratic majorities in the General Assembly last year, have now expired, meaning lawmakers will have to act to extend it in next year’s legislative session for the program to return in the summer of 2024. Statewide, the grants awarded to transit systems amounted to about $14 million annually.

Separately, RTD on Friday launched a one-year pilot program that will offer free fares for young riders. From Sept. 1, 2023, through Aug. 31, 2024, anyone age 19 or under can use RTD’s system for free.

To board RTD buses and trains at no cost, riders should be prepared to show a school ID, or another valid form of identification. More details are available on RTD’s website.