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Survey of Metro Transit riders shows they want ambassadors to focus on safety, fare enforcement

It was rising crime on platforms and vehicles that led the Legislature to change how Metro Transit deals with safety in part by shifting fare enforcement from cops to civilians.

Metro Transit general manager Lesley Kandaras and Leah Palmer, interim manager of the Transit Rider Investment Program.
Metro Transit general manager Lesley Kandaras and Leah Palmer, interim manager of the Transit Rider Investment Program.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Bus and light rail transit riders gave Metro Transit staff some clear feedback this summer on how new civilian transit ambassadors should focus their efforts: safety and fare enforcement.

By a two-to-one margin among the 2,000 responses gathered in June and July, riders cited those two issues above efforts to help riders navigate the system and pay fares.

“Sixty one percent prefer TRIP (Transit Rider Investment Program) personnel address safety issues and enforcing fares and 39% prefer them helping customers find their way,” Leah Palmer, the interim TRIP manager, told the Met Council last week. The staffers will do both, but the surveys suggest that safety is top of mind for riders.

It was rising crime on platforms and vehicles that led the Legislature to change how Metro Transit deals with safety. While the agency has been working to change both the reality and perception of poor conditions, it wasn’t until this past session that lawmakers adopted a law that shifts fare enforcement from cops to civilians.

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The non-police staffers, sometimes called transit ambassadors, are patterned after similar projects in other transit systems across the U.S. The point of the program is to take fare evasion out of the criminal justice system and transfer it to something akin to parking tickets. Because no criminal sanctions are at issue, the enforcement can be done by non-sworn peace officers. In addition, the ambassadors who will work in teams of at least three, can inform riders of violations of a new code of conduct and summon transit police if needed.

Police officers and community service officers can still issue administrative tickets for non-payment, but one goal of the new program is to free police and community service officers to patrol for criminal conduct. The previous citations also came with a fine of $180, a penalty that was considered out of sync with a failure to pay a $2.50 fare. County attorneys rarely prosecuted fare evasion tickets.

Fare collection is only an issue on so-called proof of payment rail and bus lines where passengers are expected to pay fares at the platform rather than as they pass the operator while boarding. 

“This is an opportunity to increase official presence on our system, to add more eyes and ears,” said Lesley Kandaras, Metro Transit’s general manager.

But some Met Council members, while supportive of the new project, worry it might not be enough.

“This is welcome, not only by me but by our residents, our transit riders who are responding already to the police officers who are on transit, welcoming them and glad to see them and also observing some change in behaviors,” said Met Council member Toni Carter. The former Ramsey County commissioner said she expects that TRIP personnel will be greeted in the same way. But she said the key to the program’s success is training the staffers who will both have to enforce fares and de-escalate tensions when conflicts arise.

Metro Transit
“Because there will come a time when they will not be able to hand the ticket to someone and they will have to refer that to the next step,” Carter said.

During a presentation on the program, Palmer said the TRIP personnel need the authority to carry out fare inspections, but to not be police officers, to be more approachable. But they will have radios and be able to ask for police assistance.

Met Council Member Judy Johnson said she was concerned about people who rarely pay fares and who are unlikely to pay the fines. Some, she said, might refuse to show ID or not have photo ID.

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“This is a system built for all of those who have all of those things and go, ‘Gosh, I really know I should pay this, I’d really like the discount and I’ll never do it again,’” Johnson said.

“What do we do about those who aren’t gonna pay, aren’t gonna come and contest (tickets), may not have an address, may not have a place where we can find them?” Johnson asked. 

Palmer said TRIP staff can ask for ID but not compel riders to produce it. They can order non-payers off vehicles and platforms and summon police to help. But she said many riders who might be a category of causing issues are known to police and operators and will become known to TRIP staff.

“Maybe that person does need social services. Maybe that’s the correct route. We may not be able to collect on everything. People might just go into the wind,” Palmer said.

Johnson said there are also people who are around stations or on vehicles to do mischief — to deal drugs, to prey on other people who use the transit system.

Metro Transit
“I’d like to know, if they don’t pay, then what?” she asked. “They could care less, I would imagine, about a little written ticket when they’ve got drug deals going on. I’m being very blunt. That’s a problem for us. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve.”

Kandaras said the overall plan is to “create layers of presence. Our police officers will still be out there, our supplemental security and then these transit rider investment personnel, in addition to the transit service intervention program.

“The more we’re out there, the more we’re monitoring the situation, the more likely we are to be able to address it effectively,” Kandaras said.

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Systematic fare checks

The TRIP staff are likely to be on duty during the first quarter of 2024 following at least four weeks of training. The agency is still negotiating with the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1005, about contract language for the first 22 ambassadors. They must then be hired, trained and deployed. According to the transportation omnibus bill that created the program, Metro Transit must consider current transit riders and people in financially underserved communities.

Palmer said the new staff will strive to enforce fares systematically to avoid discriminatory results. 

“That means we are going to be systematically checking fare — one end of the vehicle to the other, one end of the platform to the other,” Palmer said. “It’s not going to be spot checks. It’s not going to be you, or you, or you. We want it to be fair, we want it to be equitable, which means everybody.”

A 2015 study of enforcement by Metro Transit police found tickets were issued to Black adults at a rate almost five times higher than white adults. Black adults were arrested about seven times more often. Police cited Native Americans five times more than white riders and arrested them more than eight times more frequently.

The permanent TRIP program is the second part of a program included in the state budget. The first, termed the Transit Service Intervention Project, began June 1 as an intensive but temporary intervention with both police and social service workers. Focusing on the Blue Line and Green Line rail service, these teams are first working to find services for people who are experiencing homelessness or have mental health or substance abuse issues. The sworn officers on the teams will also be providing high profile enforcement of criminal acts and code of conduct violations.

Metro Transit also has a contract with a private security company to patrol high-crime transit stations, including Lake Street and Franklin light rail platforms in Minneapolis and transit centers at Lake Street and I-35W, Chicago-Lake Street center and the Brooklyn Center transit center. 

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In addition to the police and social worker teams, the program includes new contracts with community groups that can perform other types of outreach such as mental health and homelessness. Getting contracts are:

  • The Link, which provides crisis intervention, emergency shelter, housing, and mental health support services to youth and families experiencing homelessness
  • Minnesota Community Care, a health care provider to communities traditionally marginalized and underserved
  • Minnesota CarePartner, which provides culturally responsive mental health services through therapy, adult rehabilitative programs, children’s therapeutic programs, and substance use treatment
  • Mental Health Minnesota, which works to help people improve their mental health and wellness through direct services
  • We Push for Peace, which provides mental health support through group programs, assessing trauma and violence, unemployment, and inconsistent housing

Metro Transit staff last week proposed a fine schedule to the Met Council for administrative fare violations as well as alternative penalties for first offenders. A first-time fare evader, for example, could load $20 onto a fare card and pay only $15. They could also watch an online “transit school” video and pay $25 or watch the video and put $10 on a transit card and pay just $10.

Riders with Transit Assistance Program cards could put $5 onto that card and pay no additional fine. The Transit Assistance Program is open to lower-income riders who pay $1 to ride buses and trains rather than $2.50.

But the staff is proposing stiffer sanctions for a second violation: a $55 fine with no path to reduce them as there are for first offenses. Third-time violators would be fined $75 and be banned from the transit system for 60 days. Fourth-time violators would be fined $100 and banned for 120 days.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the locations where private security patrols are on duty. They are not patrolling the Central Station stair tower in St. Paul or the Uptown transit center.

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