You may have been on the light rail or a Metro Transit bus lately and felt unsafe, if not downright uncomfortable. A trans woman was savagely beaten at Lake Street/Midtown Station [see “Protest denounces hate crime on Metro Transit”]. More likely than not, there usually is someone hunched over on the very last seat using a lighter to prep drugs by burning the underside of a piece of tinfoil.
Scenes like this make light rail riders like Selena Wade feel uncomfortable. “The train is real bad. People smoke hard drugs, weed, cigarettes, pills. I’ve gotten into it with multiple people telling them it’s not okay to do that on the train,” said Wade, as she rode the 62 with her child, on the way to the Green Line one dreary day.
She and hundreds of light rail riders are fed up, and so is Metro Transit. And so are some state legislators, one of whom introduced a bill to flood the system with social workers to address the issues before summer arrives.
Smoking on the trains has long been a winter pastime. The agency has tried to address it by purchasing real-time surveillance systems for its light rail vehicles and requiring its officers to work overtime in 2020.
Nonetheless, smoking worsened when the pandemic began. As people abandoned the trains because they began to work remotely from home, some people started to use the trains to smoke not just cigarettes, but also hard drugs. Narcotics use increased 182 percent in 2022, over 2021 levels, according to Metro Transit.
This comes at a time when people are overdosing on opioids at rates higher than before the pandemic. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 978 Minnesotans died of an opioid overdose in 2021, more than double the number who died of an opioid overdose in 2019. Meanwhile, 4,349 people survived an opioid overdose and visited emergency rooms in 2021, compared to 2,821 people in 2019.
Meanwhile, crimes on transit—not just light rail—involving assault, fraud, gambling, theft, and sex and weapons offenses more than doubled from about 100 in September 2020 to about 200 in December 2022. Meanwhile, November 2022 light rail weekday boardings, at just over 39,000, is about half of what it was in January 2020, with just over 73,000 passenger boardings.
Seeing people smoke on the train motivated Rep. Brad Tabke (DFL-54A), who is commuting from Shakopee to Minneapolis by bus and train this session because his truck is undergoing repairs, to do something about it. He hopes to pass legislation in the coming weeks that would allocate $1 million for state agencies, counties and social service nonprofits to work together to address drug use—and homelessness—on the light rail in a matter of weeks.
The bill as introduced would also require the agency to formally adopt a code of conduct stipulating what behaviors are not acceptable on transit, excluding sleeping that does not otherwise violate the code of conduct. Police officers would be allowed to order anyone off the transit system violating those terms, as well as if they smoke, eat, litter, or have an animal on-board without the operator’s consent.
The bill is supported by the “100% Campaign”, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which runs transit service in western Dakota and northern Scott counties and has routes that connect to Metro Transit’s light rail and rapid transit bus routes.
But some who testified at Thursday’s bill hearing were skeptical this would address safety and quality-of-life concerns on the region’s light rail system. “The human cost of insufficient housing and health care make public transit one of the few places and spaces accessible to unhoused people,” said Minnesota Youth Collective Program Director Sean Lim. “So as such, this million dollars could be better used to fund initiatives that actually mitigate all of these systemic issues that we have.”
Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, offered an amendment to ensure playing loud music on transit remains a misdemeanor. “We have families with young kids, and some of the rap music…can be just as vile as some of the videos that we see,” said Petersburg.
Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura (DFL-63A), disagreed with Petersburg’s amendment, as she believes music can be a part of the local transit culture like it is in New York.
“I don’t pretend to say that everyone on the train likes that, but it’s an accepted and really often vibrant part of that culture,” said Sencer-Mura. “And I’ve seen kids on the New York subway that love to watch people dance, love to watch people play music on it.” Petersburg’s amendment failed with a voice vote.
Tabke’s bill, which will be considered by the House Ways and Means Committee, might be hard to implement. Metro Transit remains short of more than 60 full-time police officers. Both Hennepin and Ramsey counties are concerned about having available social workers, since they are short-staffed. Both suggest the agency contract with community-based organizations instead.
“There are a lot of additional legal and staffing issues with using County personnel. We are already short-staffed at Ramsey County with social workers. Bringing on new staff in this area can take four months,” testified Ramsey County Commissioner Rena Moran.
This is not the only bill Tabke has to address light rail safety. Tabke also has a bill decriminalizing fare evasion, which would allow any Met Council civilian staff, in addition to the agency’s cadre of police officers, to issue citations for fare evasion.
Such a bill has been discussed for years, but now has a chance of passing because of a state government DFL trifecta. The bill was re-referred to the House Public Safety Committee on March 10.
Meanwhile, Metro Transit has taken some steps to secure the light rail system. Late last year, they contracted with BelCom, a Bloomington-based security firm, to patrol the Franklin Avenue and Lake Street/Midtown Station. “They kind of go back and forth between the two sites,” says BelCom owner Doug Belton, who adds they have as few as two and as many as four security officers patrolling, depending on the time of day.
On Monday, the Met Council’s Transportation Committee considered awarding a contract to a Philadelphia-area security company, Allied Universal, to patrol the two stations, as well as Central Station in St. Paul, Brooklyn Center Transit Center, and Chicago-Lake Transit Center and Uptown Transit Station in Minneapolis.
The agency also entered into an agreement with the Metropolitan Airports Commission to patrol the trains as they run through the airport with Transportation Security Administration air marshals serving as backup.
Even with security guards patrolling Franklin and Lake Street stations, people continue to congregate on the platform as they drink, smoke, converse and hold train doors open.
Metro transit is a company that only cares about the busses and trains movement. They do not care about the safety of their operators/drivers. Nor do they care about the safety of the ppl. They penalize their drivers/operators if they feel the need to be pulled off the line even when bad things happen along the routes and the drivers need to be removed. Metro won’t change until they are loosing money and they dont have enough man power to move those buses or and trains . But they absolutely need council men and women as well as managers who cares about their drivers safety and well being. All they want is their busses to be on the streets and the trains on the tracks. I drove a group of homeless around when I worked there and they smoked ect ect. Transit control asked me how close were the disturbed on the bus to me and if I could open up my windows and continue. SO that tell u a lot. Smh GOOD LUCK
Make the train platform entrance more restricted so before you can have access to the train itself you have to go through a security measure. This Minnesota Nice concept was for the birds from the start.
As a grad student until 2017 at UMN-TC, I rode Southwest transit in the afternoon and evening weekly from 2009 without ever feeling unsafe or offended. The few times I rode the light rail or Metro Transit during those years, I seldom rode when I didn’t see or experience what felt like imminent danger of some sort. I observed people high and acting out, bloody filth on seats, no paying riders, and general disregard for smoking rules. The metro council is responsible for the decline of citizens’s use of public transit. I don’t use it anymore, which is a shame. I miss Minneapolis life downtown: the restaurants, the theaters, and the shopping. Our political system has abandoned law and order, and we are reaping their foolishness.