By Dennis Polhill
updated version of 2000-M
RTD is one of Colorado’s biggest and most obscure governments. Elections have not received sufficient public scrutiny, making control of the RTD Board a target for special interests.
What the Bill Does: S.B. 39 changes RTD Board elections to partisan elections and increases the compensation of elected Board members to $12,000 per year.
History of RTD — RTD came into existence as the product of two uncomfortable trends: the OPEC oil embargo and the rapid decline in mass transit use. At the same time that it was unclear whether automobile transportation would continue to be viable, it was equally unclear whether mass transit transportation could survive.
All over the country privately owned trolley companies were replaced by privately owned bus companies. With the continuing decline in market size, private bus companies closed and were replaced by government owned bus companies. The government owned bus companies received both tax subsidies and regulatory protections from competition so that market share might not erode further. The City of Denver found itself in the bus business in 1965.
To broaden the scope of services and to relieve Denver of the tax burden of the bus company, RTD was created legislatively. The RTD Board was legislatively appointed. Initial subsidies were comparatively small and were satisfied by a mishmash of fees and property taxes. In 1973 RTD went to voters with an aggressive plan. A new sales tax of 1/2 of one percent would be assessed for 10 years over the six-county metropolitan area and the revenue would be assigned 20% to expanded bus service and 80% to the construction of a 98-mile PRT (personal rapid transit) system.
Election irregularities and broken promises put a cloud over RTD, which seems to persist today. The special election was scheduled for the Friday after the Labor Day holiday, September 7, 1973. Proof of residency was needed to vote, not voter registration. Voter turnout was only 116,480, close to 10% of the population of that time. Polling places with the highest “no” votes ran out of ballots.
Because of Colorado’s lack of a petition process at the district level, citizen activists petitioned onto the November 1980 state ballot to change the RTD Board to a 15-member elected board. Responsible, unaffected rural voters abstained at shocking levels from voting on this issue. Therefore, it is unlikely that down state voting distorted the will of RTD constituents in the decision to go to an elected board.
History of RTD Board Elections — RTD’s first board election was November 1982. To phase into four-year overlapping terms, eight of the 15 seats were elected for two-year terms and seven were elected for four-year terms. In the afterglow of the 1980 election, where RTD was on the ballot for an elected board and for another tax increase to construct light rail, which was defeated, 1982 is indisputably RTD’s most competitive election ever. Fifty-nine candidates came out for the 15 seats, an average of 3.9 candidates per district. Only one district had an uncontested race with a single candidate. Nothing close to this level of competition has occurred since.
The official election records for 1984 have been lost. The Secretary of State did not start keeping RTD election data until 1990 and RTD seems to have misplaced their copy. The 1984 data is derived from post-election newspaper coverage. Eleven candidates ran for 8 seats. Four seats were uncontested.
In 1986 seven seats were up, and 13 candidates came out: three of seven seats were uncontested.
In 1988 11 candidates came out for eight races, yielding seven of eight seats as uncontested.
In 1990 10 candidates came out for seven seats. Five of seven were uncontested. But worse, one of the uncontested seats had no names on the ballot, because no candidate had taken the trouble to qualify. That seat was won with a write-in campaign that netted 61 votes.
In 1992 things got a little more competitive. Three of the eight seats up were contested. Four races had a single name on the ballot, but two of them received write-in opposition. The Littleton District had no names on the ballot but six candidates received write-ins.
1994 was the year of incumbent screw-ups. Seven seats were up by their regular cycle, but an eighth seat was up for a two-year term because of an appointment to fill a vacancy. The appointed incumbent did not know of her need to file petitions and did not file. Four other incumbents failed to acquire enough signatures to appear on the ballot. This left 12 candidates for 8 seats. Five of the 8 were uncontested. Had the incumbents been on the ballot, 1994 would have been the most competitive election since 1982.
In 1996 eight seats were up by the regular cycle and one two-year election was on the ballot due to an appointment to fill a vacancy. There were 20 candidates for the nine seats and three of the nine were uncontested.
In 1998 seven seats were up by the regular cycle and one two-year election was on the ballot due to an appointment to fill a vacancy. There were 21 candidates for eight seats and only one of the eight races was uncontested.
In 2000 eight seats were up by regular cycle with a ninth seat to fill a two-year vacancy. Two of the nine elections had two candidates and seven had a single, uncontested candidate.
Summary of Board Elections — In all of RTD’s election history 42 of 87 races (or 48.3%) have been uncontested. During RTD’s decade of least public visibility (1986 through 1994 inclusive), 25 of 38 races were uncontested for an uncontested rate of 65.8%. The 78% rate of uncontested elections in 2000 was exceeded only in 1988.
Note: Write-in candidates are not considered to be competitive and are not counted.
RTD’s Scale — RTD currently has 900 buses, 2,400 employees and a budget of $470 million. With the 1999 de-Brucing and light rail approval, RTD will soon be second only to the state government in size. For comparative purposes, a recent CDOT report revealed that it had 2,000 employees and $1,200 million in both state and federal gasoline taxes flowing through the HUTF (Highway Users Trust Fund) which is used both for CDOT and for all of Colorado’s cities and counties.
Analysis — RTD has spent millions of dollars on things that citizens do not want and which have not been approved. Though RTD Board elections were getting somewhat more competitive until 2000, RTD election competition, oversight, scrutiny, or accountability is far from sufficient as balanced against the magnitude of resources consumed. With partisan elections it is likely that there will be at least two solid, credible candidates for each RTD seat. Though this would make election more difficult for third party and independent candidates, partisan elections would clearly make RTD elections more competitive. S.B. 39 also requires that RTD plans conform with those of CDOT. CDOT involvement will do no harm and may, in fact, expedite cooperation between the agencies.
Prepared by Dennis Polhill, Senior Fellow, Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, CO.