RTD shouldn’t allow unelected CDOT official withhold federal funds

Our nation’s republic, the world’s longest-standing democracy, is one upheld by a careful system of checks and balances. A delicate parity maintained both by separate branches of government working in concert and the intentional distinction of administrative jurisdiction. Local control is a tentpole refrain for states’ rights issues from cannabis legalization to infrastructure redevelopment.

We should always be cautious of any callous overstep from state and federal agencies — overstep like the withholding of tens of millions of dollars in federal funds.

In a letter sent on Oct. 20, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, Shoshana Lew, proclaimed that CDOT would be withholding federal funds if her department were not permitted to command the decisions of the Regional Transportation District’s Board of Directors and override the will of the voters who granted us our authority. The money in question is unobligated dollars dispersed by the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan and the Federal Transit Administration specifically to facilitate urban corridor mass transit through the decline in ridership that occurred after most of our country was told to shelter in place during the rise of COVID-19.

An unelected political appointee essentially holding United States federal funds for ransom, demanding decisions be made quickly, with no public input, as the process demands, should not be permitted. This is a failure of regionalism, a stunning example of petty parochialism, and the absence of leadership.

Director Lew, a Gov. Jared Polis appointee, is effectively executing major route and service change decisions independently, without the opportunity to benefit from public comment. In the process, she is also insinuating a failure on the transportation Board’s behalf that is absolutely unfounded and insulting.

We are a struggling agency, working to retain enough operators to run our current services, and Lew’s demand, punching downward while we build upward, is not helping us do our jobs better. Lew is preventing RTD from being rescued; as Congress intended, using her position of power to withhold the lifeline we so desperately need.

Her letter purports that CDOT will dictate the service lines that 100% of the $34 million in federal COVID relief funds be directed toward, all in Boulder and Longmont. Their actions are in the purported interest of maintaining “essential access to opportunity for low income, minority, and other disadvantaged populations.” An important goal, and one that RTD has had our decisions focused around since I became a voice on our board.

Denverite noted in April that “RTD aimed for equity when making pandemic-era cuts, and it got pretty dang close,” and that is because our decisions were rooted in community feedback, facilitating conversations with traditionally excluded groups, namely our city’s Black, brown, and unhoused populations.

Compared to the average 31% reduction in service, low-income routes had a 13% smaller reduction compared to higher-income routes, and routes with a majority Black and brown ridership had a 29% smaller reduction than other routes, a letter our board released in April noted. Those statistics have only continued to improve and left to make our own decisions on the equitable disbursement of these federal funds, the board will surely be able to continue our established success.

To release this letter mid-week with a demand for compliance by week’s end is unconscionable, especially after the many months — creeping toward years — of shared desperation that the pandemic has left on our country’s people. These very same people rely on our services to survive. Lew’s conditions harm our communities, harm our staff, and harm our ability to work collaboratively.

Our responsibility as elected representatives is to ensure that we operate on behalf of our constituents, through a lens of equity and that our decision-making and thinking is guided by those tenets. We move people. We connect communities and we provide services to those that need them. Employees, parents, teachers, all depend on our service. The demand that our operators work six days each week in order to honor Lew’s demand is one based on an ill-informed opinion, lacking the critical expertise to understand its impact.

Lews betrayal the unsaid portion of Director Lew’s letters. She notes the demanded lines “serve communities that have long paid their fair share into RTD, without the benefit of the rail service that voters were promised.” Still bitter that the state agency has been unable to bully the Regional District’s responsibility to every person living in each of the population centers all along the front range, CDOT is silencing those people’s voices in this overreach.

I ask, as your elected representative of your voice on RTD’s Board of Directors, that you help me ensure that your voice is heard. Let Governor Polis, his political appointees, and my colleagues on RTD’s Board of Directors hear from you on this critical, costly decision. I refuse to trade $34 million dollars of our own money in exchange for the loss of our input in the process. You shouldn’t either.

Shontel M. Lewis sits on RTD’s board directors representing the northeastern portion of the Regional Transportation District. This area comprises Aurora within Adams County, City & County of Denver, and unincorporated Adams County lying south of Denver.

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