State funding to help public transit clean up its image
Last Thursday, Metro Transit announced a series of initiatives to make public transportation safer in light of increased crime on their light rail system and the conclusion of one of the most successful legislative sessions in Minnesota history.
The initiatives, funded by a $2 million appropriation from the state legislature, includes deploying social workers and partnering with community organizations to check up on people who are using drugs on public transit or using it as shelter.
Longer-term, the agency will also begin hiring “transit ambassadors” to provide a presence on the Metro system, which includes the system’s light rail and rapid bus routes. In July, those very ambassadors will also begin enforcing payment when fare evasion will be decriminalized.
The initiatives were first proposed at the state legislature in 2019, following years of distrust around the agency’s police force in handling low-level offenses such as fare evasion. At least one incident involving a fare beater in 2017 almost resulted in their deportation.
Past efforts to decriminalize fare evasion were blocked by the GOP-dominated legislature, who were more inclined to unconditionally support police officers and their work. DFL legislators were able to get the initiatives passed this year because of a state government trifecta, renewed concerns around crime—the agency experienced close to 2,400 crimes on the entire system during the first three months of 2023—and an ongoing shortage of more than 60 police officers to enforce fare evasion.
The initiative, which began Thursday and will last for 12 weeks, will be focused on some of the agency’s busiest light rail stations, which include Target Field and Lake Street/Midtown Stations in Minneapolis, Central and Union Depot Stations in St. Paul, and the Mall of America transit center.
Nonprofit organizations will provide outreach to those experiencing homelessness or using drugs on the system, as well as provide a presence to deter crime for the first three weeks. Then, for the remaining nine weeks, the agency will flood the system with transit officers.
On a bus ride in February, Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee and the sponsor of the bill, explained the two-phase approach. “We’re pushing a reset button on how we handle the Blue Line and the Green Line and what is expected of transit riders,” said Tabke. “Transit should be an asset that is comfortable and safe for everyone to ride. But if people are smoking, using drugs, or being belligerent on the train, it’s not a safe or comfortable ride.”
At a press conference, DFL Sen. Scott Dibble explained what this plan means for the youth. “I had several town hall meetings, one of them with sixth through eighth graders,” said Dibble. “They said they don’t want to ride transit because they don’t feel safe. That’s what this is about.”
The agency currently has a partnership with A Mother’s Love to enforce the agency’s rules and connect riders in need of support services. Representatives with A Mothers’ Love said at the press conference that their efforts have been helping.
“When we see problems or troubled areas or troubled children or adults, we’ll approach them. We advise them what the rules are, and then we ask them to abide by the rules. And for the most part, we’re getting a really good response,” said Hortense Hollie of A Mother’s Love.
The agency hopes to bring on more organizations like A Mother’s Love to conduct outreach on transit through a request for proposals they released on June 5.
The Met Council and Metro Transit have also started the process necessary to begin hiring 26 transit ambassadors, who the agency says will provide a presence on the system by keeping the system safe, helping those in need, providing directions to social services, as well as enforcing fare payment starting July 1, when fare evasion becomes a petty misdemeanor.
Chief Ernest Morales III says they plan to hire the ambassadors in-house as part of the Metro Transit Police Department. Although Morales acknowledges the number of ambassadors they plan to hire is not enough, he says they are working on building up their law enforcement ranks, which currently has a staffing shortage of more than 60 full-time officers.
In addition, Metro Transit is also leveraging contracted security, which was being deployed to six transit stations beginning this month.
With the imminent decriminalization of fare evasion, riders caught fare-beating can pay a fine of anywhere from $35 to $100 plus surcharges, as opposed to the current $180 fine. They can also pay the agency money for future rides or participate in community service. It is unclear how the agency’s hiring of ambassadors will be affected by their making two transit routes free for 18 months starting July 1, another directive in the transportation bill that passed this past legislative session.
The transportation bill also requires the agency to adopt a code of conduct and cleaning standards. The code of conduct establishes how riders should behave on public transit or they will be removed by a police officer. The public is invited to comment on this code—see below.
Toward the end of the press conference, Morales stressed patience as the agency works to make the system safe. “Change comes, but it takes time, so please be patient,” he said. “But please hold my feet to the fire if I haven’t delivered.”
The agency is currently soliciting feedback on what should be in their code of conduct at www.surveymonkey.com/r/CustomerCodeofConductSurvey
Full disclosure: The writer testified in support of legislation to decriminalize fare evasion.