By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) – There’s mixed emotions about the Regional Transportation District reinstating fares on July 1, after three months of the fares being temporarily eliminated due to the pandemic. Some people have been eagerly anticipating the return of fares, but some bus drivers are concerned it could put their health at risk.

(credit: CBS)

The return of fares means bus riders will need to enter buses from the front. When fares were eliminated, riders were entering from the back, keeping drivers at a safe distance from riders. The change in boarding is a central concern for some bus operators.

“The fare box is very close to the driver, hardly 18 inches, and when they are putting their money in, they are looking directly at me, so if they ask a question, they are going to be speaking directly in my face,” said one bus operator, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

While RTD is asking riders to wear a mask while on board, the bus driver says that policy is hard to enforce, and he’s seen several riders without them.

“My major concern is if they don’t have a mask on, I have no safety at all, with them standing that close to me,” said the bus operator. “I have people on my bus that yell at me for wearing a mask, people who don’t think that there’s even a virus out there.”

RTD says it has provided masks, gloves, sanitizers, disinfectants, and face shields to drivers. But the bus operator worries that’s not going to be enough.

“(The face shield) might protect my facial area, but my arms and the rest of my body, it’s not going to protect that,” the bus operator said.

(credit: CBS)

The bus operator believes RTD should install plastic or acrylic sheet barriers in all of its buses before reinstating fares. RTD says it is in the process of installing those barriers, but it will take months to install a barrier in all 1,000 buses it owns. By using the RTD body shop to installing the barriers, rather than hiring a third-party company to do the work, RTD says it’s saving a significant amount of money.

“It is going to take us a matter of months to outfit all of our bus fleet with the operator shields, and we are really not in a position to be waiting months down the road to start fair collection,” said Pauletta Tonilas, assistant general manager of communications for RTD. “By not having fares for the past three months, it has been a substantial hit to our bottom line. So, that has been part of the equation as well, is what can we do for our own financial health while also looking out for the health of our operators and our riders.”

Some riders and train operators for RTD have told CBS4 they want the fares to come back, because they’ve seen homeless riders taking advantage of the transit system, making some people feel unsafe.

“The homeless on the trains is out of control,” said one RTD train operator who did not want to be identified. “Bringing back the fares is great for the train side… (but) if I was on the bus side, I don’t think that would be ideal.”

(credit: CBS)

Tonilas said she’s heard complaints about the homeless issue, as well.

“We were having issues with non-destination riders who hop on transit, and ride back-and-forth all day, and are not de-boarding, and these are often times folks who are not wearing face coverings,” Tonilas said.

So far, Tonilas says 12 RTD employees have contracted COVID-19, seven of those employees were operators. Tonilas says all of those employees have recovered.

“So, that’s 12 employees out of 3,000, we feel very lucky for that,” Tonilas said.

But the bus operator who spoke to CBS4 worries he will be next.

“They know we’re at a safety risk, but they are more concerned about collecting money than they are about our own safety,” the bus operator said.

The union for RTD operators plans to picket on the issue Friday morning, saying in a news release, “the district is not ready for safe front-door boarding on July 1.”

RTD asks riders continue to wear masks while on board, and to be patient if their bus can only accept a certain number of passengers to maintain social distance between riders, as another bus should be coming soon.

“COVID without a question has been an extraordinary situation for all of us, COVID didn’t come with a manual on how to deal with it,” Tonilas explained. “So we’ve all had to step through decisions, and be nimble and flexible, and make the very best decisions that we can at the time.”

Kati Weis