Union Station plan: Restrict bus terminal to passengers only

New plans to help reduce crime and drug use at Union Station call for installing turnstiles or other equipment at entrances to the underground bus terminal, converting that waiting area into a paid-fare zone as soon as next year.

At least, that is the Regional Transportation District’s long-term plan. Its leader this week outlined several changes that will happen sooner in the bus concourse, including covering or disconnecting power outlets in walkways, fixing and upgrading lighting, installing smoke detectors in bathrooms and reducing the number of entrances to the terminal.

While the Union Station area of downtown Denver has drawn higher numbers of homeless people, transients and other people in recent months, the bus concourse has become a particular hang-out spot. Union Station’s main building has a larger security presence and more activity, but the concourse below the train platforms has been less busy, since fewer people are riding buses at a time when transit ridership is still down considerably from pre-pandemic levels.

Since late fall, community groups, transit riders and others have complained about visible drug use, drug dealing and violence — as well as victimization of homeless people — in the bus terminal. One of the latest incidents was a non-fatal shooting in the terminal over the weekend.

Some of the recent challenges have spilled onto RTD’s buses and trains, too, with light-rail operators and passengers reporting more frequent drug use as a concern.

The Denver Police Department and RTD’s small transit police force have stepped up patrols in the area, making hundreds of arrests in recent months. Meanwhile, RTD formed a steering committee with city and community leaders to come up with longer-term solutions even as it temporarily closed bathrooms and took other immediate steps.

General Manager and CEO Debra Johnson laid out RTD’s new plan to the agency’s board on Tuesday night. She said the effort will require “heavy compassion,” as RTD balances the need for safety against the fact that Union Station is a public space.

“While these changes, along with an increased police and security presence, will have positive ripple effects throughout the transit system, the unwanted activities impacting the agency are a byproduct of complex societal issues that RTD alone cannot solve,” Johnson said.

Johnson detailed several changes planned for the coming months, including more frequent cleaning, lighting repairs, adding new “entry” and “exit” labels on sliding doors to improve pedestrian flow and removing access to the outlets. Pre-recorded audio announcements about services, fares, safety and other topics will be broadcast regularly.

Other changes will take between six months and a year, she said. Those include upgrades for lights, new signage and installation of TVs at the bus concourse’s entrances so that security officers can view live security feeds throughout the facility. A reduction in the number of concourse entrances from seven to three will allow RTD to block off stairways where people tend to congregate.

Creation of the paid-fare zone in the concourse will take the most time, Johnson said, giving no firm time frame. That plan will require new equipment to scan passes at terminal entry points as well as changes to RTD’s tickets and passes and a public education campaign, she said. Costs are still being worked out.

“This means only individuals who present appropriate fare will have access to the bus concourse,” Johnson told board members. “While the creation of a paid-fare area is likely the most impactful change that can be implemented to curtail the unwanted activities taking place in and around Denver Union Station, I want to stress that this is a significant change to current operations and must be done in a coordinated and diligent manner.”

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