The new chair of the Metropolitan Council called a press conference Wednesday not just to announce new initiatives to improve safety on Twin Cities buses and light rail but to send a message to riders — and legislators.
“We have the full attention of Metro Transit and the Met Council on this issue,” Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said. “We’ve heard the concern and we don’t have all the answers; this is our start. We are absolutely committed to returning safety and a culture of welcome to all of our operations.”
Standing in front of a Green Line train at the Lowertown garage, Zelle outlined new and ongoing efforts by the agency to address a rise in crime and misconduct, as well as the perception that riding Metro Transit is unsafe.
“Mobility is critical for connecting people to their jobs, to health care, to school, to wherever they want to go,” Zelle said. “And public transportation is the lifeblood of our economic prosperity and our inclusive growth.”
Among the initiatives begun last year are increasing transit police hours; using plainclothes officers on trains; creating homelessness action teams; reaching agreement with nonprofits to reserve shelter beds for referrals from Metro Transit; increasing staff on the agency’s “text for safety” program; and purchasing new cameras for trains that can be monitored and used to dispatch police officers.
The agency has also increased cleaning schedules for trains and stations and last year ended 24-hour service on the Green Line, both to allow better cleaning and maintenance and to eliminate hours of service where problems were most likely.
Zelle said the outreach to homeless people who seek shelter on trains and in stations has increased. “Stations are secure and warm but they are not set up to be shelters,” Zelle said. The Met Council has devoted an additional $1 million and sought business and foundation help to increase the availability of both short-term and long-term beds.
The agency this year will set aside $1.8 million to purchase up to 20,000 overtime hours for part-time and full-time police and will borrow officers from other police agencies. It is also supporting legislation to create a transit ambassadors program, part of a House DFL rail safety bill that would employ civilian staff to check fares, report crimes and misconduct as well as try to deescalate confrontations on transit.
“We need to have more eyes and ears on our buses, trains, stations and platforms,” Zelle said
When he released that plan alongside legislators earlier this month, Zelle said the transit agency needs to “up our game” on rail safety. “We see that safety, the atmosphere of safety, the atmosphere of being comfortable to come in and out of all of our buses and trains is really critical,” Zelle said. “Those who do not feel welcome coming onto the trains deserve to feel that way.”
There have been several high-profile violent attacks and murders on Metro Transit trains and buses over the last year. Those incidents, and media coverage of them, have helped paint an image of a system that is dangerous to ride. And while agency police have tried to reassure the riding public that crime is still relatively low, the agency’s own statistics show increases in serious crime on light rail trains and at stations.
Compared to January of 2019, Green Line citations increased 69 percent last month. Blue Line citations increased 88 percent year over year. Arrests also are up 63 percent on the Green Line and 86 percent on the Blue Line.
Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell said Wednesday that he has put in a new system for deploying his officers, with more on trains than in squad cars. He also now concentrates officers at hot spots such as Central Station in St. Paul and the Warehouse District and Lake Street in Minneapolis.
“Let it be known — even if you don’t see us — we are watching,” Frizell said.
A political issue?
At the Legislature, there are bills offered from both Republicans and DFLers that seek to respond to both the reality and perception of danger on Metro Transit.
The DFL bill, House File 3085, leans more on a social services model than a law enforcement model, though it includes elements of both. Fare evasion would be decriminalized and fines reduced. Currently, a ticket for fare evasion issued by a transit police officer comes with a $180 fine and is akin in severity to committing an assault or driving under the influence.
Because that penalty seems too severe, bill sponsor Brad Tabke said only 3 percent of the fines are ever collected. County attorneys don’t feel it worth their time to pursue court action against those who don’t pay, the Shakopee DFLer said.
The new tickets would be petty misdemeanors, comparable to traffic or parking tickets. And they would be issued primarily by a new corps of transit ambassadors, who would ride trains to enforce fares and help passengers. According to Tabke, they would be trained in de-escalation and how to direct riders in need to social services.
The new ambassadors would be similar to the yellow-shirted Downtown Improvement District staff in Minneapolis who help visitors and act as extra eyes for law enforcement, though a closer comparison might be with a new pilot program on Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco bay area.
House Transportation committee chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said he thinks fare collections will increase under the new system and make transit safer. “This moves us from a reactive place to a proactive place,” Hornstein said.
Rep. Jon Koznick, a Republican from Lakeville who was briefly the chair of the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government, said he wasn’t opposed to the civil citation from fare evasion but said there must also be a stronger deterrence effort by law enforcement.
“Just having a hall monitor and reducing the fine isn’t going to be a revenue maker to pay for the ambassadors,” Koznick said. “We have a different approach but I’m hopeful that by the end of session we may have some agreement.”
He also called on the Met Council to have a plan in place soon. “I share the concern that the brand of Metro Transit is getting severely damaged,” he said.
One GOP bill comes from Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska. His proposal, House File 3110, would require the Met Council to commission a third-party safety assessment of the transit system. The study, due next February, would cover recent criminal activity, look at ways to reduce fare evasion and make recommendations for change.
Torkelson, the GOP lead on the House Transportation Policy and Finance committee, said he rides the Green Line daily during legislative sessions from an apartment in downtown St. Paul to the Capitol. Having ridden rail systems around the world, he said feels most unsafe on the Green Line, and likened the issue of crime on Metro Transit to a school teacher who doesn’t set high standards the first day of school.
“The students get out of hand,” he said. “If you try to reign it in later, you have to go a step above, and (Metro Transit) are not willing to do that.
“You have to have an environment where people feel safe and secure because we want people to use this train,” Torkelson said. “We’ve invested billions. But when my constituents come here from out of the metropolitan area and want to ride the train from Mall of America to the stadium, they should feel safe.”
Torkelson’s comments came after graphic testimony earlier this month before the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government that oversees the Met Council. Two Metro Transit rail operators told stories of crime, threats and misconduct on trains, behavior that ranged from drug use and assaults to urination and defecation.
Honey Darling, an operator and executive committee member of the union that represents Metro Transit workers, said operators as well as staff who clean trains and stations have been assaulted and threatened. She said operators often face unsafe conditions when they are required to clear trains of passengers, often without help from transit police. “When we have criminal activity on the train, it goes on all night,” she said.
Late at night, security guards at the airport and Mall of America won’t let people get off trains: not at all at the mall, and not unless they have bags or airport staff credentials at the airport.
Also testifying was Jerry Ziegler, who called being a train operator his dream job, though stress from working on trains now leads to anxiety. “I cannot calm down when I get home due to trauma caused on the job,” Ziegler said. “I love trains, I love to do it well, I love the people of the Twin Cities. … Right now we have a dangerous, unsanitary, unsafe, and dirty mode of transit to offer our guests and our citizens.
“With the murder two weeks ago, I have to ask myself everyday, am I going home tonight, am I going to HCMC on a gurney for major surgery, or am I going to HCMC in a black body bag?”
On Wednesday, Wes Kooistra, general manager of Metro Transit, acknowledged issues with light rail, especially on late-night and end-of-the-line trains and with those who ride at night for shelter and refuse to leave when directed to by operators.
The agency has responded, Kooistra said, with increased police presence at night and at end-of-line shift changes. He also said 150 operator barriers have been installed on buses and have 450 more on order. “We’re taking those issues seriously,” he said. “We take any concern about safety from operators seriously because they’re the backbone of our system.”