Opening of N-Line to Denver’s north suburbs a rare “bright spot” for COVID-battered transit sector

RTD has spent the better part of a decade launching new train lines across the metro area as the sprawling transit agency aims to fulfill the promise it made nearly 16 years ago, when voters approved the multibillion-dollar FasTracks and its promised 120-plus miles of rail.

On Monday, the Regional Transportation District will open what will likely be — at least for the foreseeable future — the last major rail corridor in its 2,342-square-mile service area. But the debut of the N-Line to the city’s northern suburbs will be like no other opening RTD has held before, with the coronavirus pandemic having gutted transit ridership.

The 13-mile commuter rail line connecting Union Station to Commerce City, Northglenn and Thornton is one of the only major transit projects anywhere to go operational in the midst of a global health crisis, and its launch next week raises fresh questions about what the future of public transportation will look like once the coronavirus fades into memory.

In Colorado alone, the pandemic has sunk RTD’s ridership a whopping 64.4% during the second quarter of 2020 as compared to the same period the year before, according to American Public Transportation Association data. RTD projects a budget shortfall of $215 million next year as a result of the economic disruption, and the agency is contemplating the possible elimination of more than 500 jobs.

But outgoing Interim General Manager Paul Ballard noted The Denver Post that the N-Line has been on the drawing board for more than a decade, with construction of the $832 million project having commenced back in 2014. Pandemic or no pandemic, it needs to open now that the work is complete, he said.

“When you make that kind of investment, you have to put it into operation,” he said.

Still, COVID-19 is not making things easy for RTD’s latest rail launch. Because of the ridership plunge across the district that started in March with the arrival of the virus, Ballard says the N-Line will likely carry less than half of the projected 5,600 to 8,100 daily riders it was expected to have at the end of its first year.

Already the agency has adjusted service frequency on the N-Line from every 20 minutes, as originally planned, to every 30 minutes. And RTD will reduce the number of trains it uses in the corridor from five to three.

But Ballard is confident that the impacts of COVID-19 on transit’s future won’t be as dire or as long-lasting as some are speculating, even with the fundamental changes the virus has wrought in working habits across the country. He called the N-Line’s opening “one of the few bright spots” in an otherwise awful year.

“This is going to be a blip,” he said of the pandemic. “I think people will come back to the office. People will still want to communicate face to face — or at least mask to mask.”

“Don’t pick on transit”

Experts contacted for this story said the transit sector has been through trials before, whether it’s competition with ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft or the advent of teleworking more than a decade ago. Ram Pendyala, a professor of transportation systems at Arizona State University, said the industry will weather this challenge, as well.

“As the pandemic fades — or we figure out how to manage it — things will get back to whatever the new normal might be, and I don’t think it’s going to be that much different from the old normal,” he said. “Transit is still a very effective way to carry a lot of people when there is a lot of traffic on the roads.”

While tech companies like Google have announced extended work-from-home arrangements for their employees into 2021, Pendyala said that is offset by firms trying to get back to standard operating procedure. The Wall Street Journal reported that JPMorgan Chase ordered its trading staff back to the office starting next week.

“There’s a lot of America that is beyond Google, Facebook and Apple,” Pendyala said. “There’s no question that there’s a huge number of workers — Walmart stockers, janitors and hourly staff — that need to get to work.”

Transit, he said, has been getting a bad rap as news outlets paint its current condition in grim terms, but other parts of the economy — like concert venues, airlines and the cruise industry — are in the same predicament.

“Transit is not alone so don’t pick on transit,” he said.

Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy and mobility with the American Public Transportation Association, also challenged the idea that the coronavirus has forever altered transit.

“To say transit won’t come back is to say large public events won’t come back, that sports won’t come back,” said Guzzetti, who helped lead transit agencies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

He said people are at their core social animals, and shared work spaces, where employees can gather and bounce ideas off one another, have thrived as a result. The power of in-person collaboration won’t simply melt away as a result of a global pandemic, he said.

“There’s a reason cities have tall buildings — they allow creative people to connect with one another through commerce,” Guzzetti said.

More track to lay

In the meantime, RTD has to dig itself out of a budgetary hole and deal with service levels that have been drastically cut since April. And it must do so at a time when it is turning over power at the highest level, welcoming Debra Johnson as the general manager of the 51-year-old agency.

Johnson, deputy CEO of Long Beach Transit in California for the last six years, is expected to start at RTD in November. And with her induction will come familiar and lingering complaints about RTD’s rollout of FasTracks.

While the N-Line is finally coming online after a two-year delay, a similar train to Boulder and Longmont is still years away from becoming reality due to a bloated price tag and difficulties negotiating a track-sharing agreement with BNSF. Even the N-Line itself isn’t complete — another 5.5-mile segment extending further north is in the corridor’s blueprint but has no funding to proceed.

Still, Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann is happy to have the portion that is opening next week. On Thursday, Kulmann took a ride on the new line during a media preview of the service, which features a 29-minute journey to Union Station with six stations and Colorado’s longest bridge.

She said it will take traffic off of overtaxed Interstate 25 and provide a direct link for city residents and visitors.

“I think it will help revitalize Thornton,” Kulmann said. “We have an opportunity now to bring people to Thornton and see what we have to offer.”

It will be the first rail line in RTD’s system to charge the same $3 fare at any station — a pilot program it is rolling out for the first six months — as opposed to using a tiered approach that costs passengers more the longer they ride. Kulmann called transit an “equalizer” for those who can’t afford a car or can’t pay for rides by taxi or Uber.

“I think the voters are going to be very happy about this,” she said.

IF YOU GO

What: The launch of N-Line service

When: 10 a.m. Monday; passenger boarding begins in-person at noon

Where: On the N-Line YouTube page

Cost: Free through Sept. 27; $3 thereafter

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