Eco Pass by the numbers
2011 Boulder County RTD revenues: $18.2 million
Estimated cost for all residents and employees to have an Eco Pass: $21.5 million
Estimated Boulder County ridership increase: 62 percent
Estimated city of Boulder ridership increase: 38 percent
Estimated number of passes that would be issued countywide: 354,077
New Eco Pass holders: 272,642
Most of the cost of a communitywide Eco Pass program is already being paid by Boulder County residents, workers and employers in the form of cash fares, monthly passes and other Eco Pass programs, a joint city-county feasibility study found.
Many city leaders have advocated providing an Eco Pass to every Boulder resident and worker as a way to increase transit use and meet other city goals, like reducing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. But others, including Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum, have questioned whether the proposal would be so expensive that it wouldn't be worth it.
The study commissioned by Boulder and Boulder County was an attempt to determine whether communitywide Eco Pass would be feasible.
Transportation planners and Regional Transportation District officials called it "a good first step," but there are several more steps — including political decisions by the Boulder City Council and the Boulder County commissioners about whether to move forward, an agreement with RTD about likely costs and voter approval of new taxes or fees to pay for the program — before everyone in Boulder County might have an Eco Pass.
Consultants working with Boulder and Boulder County transportation planners used RTD ridership data, national and international research on fare elasticity, the experience of other communities that introduced "fare-free" transit and the experience of county-initiated communitywide Eco Pass programs in Nederland and Lyons to analyze how much ridership might increase if people were offered a "free" Eco Pass.
They looked at scenarios in which only residents got the passes, only workers and everyone.
They estimated that bus ridership would increase 62 percent in the county if everyone had an Eco Pass and 38 percent in the city, where ridership is already higher and more people have passes.
Giving passes just to residents would increase ridership 57 percent in the county and 27 percent in the city, the study found. Giving them just to workers would increase ridership 26 percent in the county and 21 percent in the city.
That increase in ridership is called "induced demand."
Officials said the most significant finding was that paying for all that new ridership at reduced Eco Pass rates would not cost that much more than Boulder County residents are already paying RTD for transit, even when the cost of additional buses and extra service are factored in.
"The induced demand portion is not a huge amount because we're already paying so much at the farebox," said Boulder transportation planner Chris Hagelin. "We're already most of the way there."
Existing payments to RTD from all sources — cash fares, 10-book rides, monthly passes and various Eco Pass contracts with employers, neighborhoods and the University of Colorado — were $18.2 million in 2011.
Paying for the additional ridership and service under a communitywide Eco Pass for Boulder County would cost $21.5 million, the study found.
Depending on the scenario, between 85 and 94 percent of the cost of communitywide Eco Pass is already being paid to RTD, the study found.
Scott Reed, a spokesman for RTD, said previous RTD studies have not found that nearly so much of the cost is already in the system. In other places where communitywide Eco Pass has been implemented, the ridership has been higher than anticipated and so have the costs to RTD, Reed said.
Reed said RTD would take a close look at the study and work with the city and the county to determine what price would fully cover the transportation district's costs.
"The assumption is that there is significant excess capacity on existing trips," he said. "By offering reduced fares, many people will want to take advantage of that who may not have previously indicated they would do so. That results in having to provide additional trips, additional buses and potentially even implementing additional routes, all of which will need to be vetted before we could proceed with any such program."
Nonetheless, Reed called the study "an encouraging first step" toward implementing a broader Eco Pass program.
Scott McCarey, Boulder County's multimodal division manager, said the county was heavily involved in the programs in Nederland and Lyons, and the response levels there were factored into this study.
"Our experience would suggest that this is right, though you never really know until you try something," he said.
McCarey said the most important message of the study is that a large amount of the cost of a Boulder County Eco Pass would be "replacement revenue" that the community is already paying RTD.
Providing an Eco Pass to every resident and worker would mean issuing an additional 272,642 passes at an additional cost of $11.98 per new pass.
Hagelin said the study will be incorporated into the city's Transportation Master Plan update so that the City Council can consider it along with other possible investments in transit.
Voters are unlikely to see any of the funding options on the ballot this November, Hagelin said. There is too much work still to do on the options.
Some of the possibilities are a property tax, a sales tax, a head tax on employees, a fee on utility bills or some combination of all of those, Hagelin said.
And the city and county will need some mechanism to account for people who both live and work in the city or the county, Hagelin said.
Eco Passes are now provided either by employers, the school district, the university or one of 44 participating neighborhood groups.
Large institutional users like the University of Colorado may want to maintain their own RTD Eco Pass contracts for students and employees, Hagelin said, but the most likely scenario is that the individual employer and neighborhood passes would be replaced by the communitywide pass.
Hagelin said that has advantages for low-income residents who don't have the $100 or $200 to pay for a neighborhood pass up front and for people whose neighborhoods don't have good enough transit service to convince their neighbors to go in on a pass.
Hagelin said giving passes to everyone has the potential for "creating a culture of transit, where kids in Boulder are growing up with an Eco Pass in their pocket."
"What is the long-term behavior change that results from that?" he said.