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How an effort to address Metro Transit safety got left behind at the Minnesota Legislature

Even with a July special session looming, the issue may have lost any chance of passing in 2020. Why? 

Green Line at Snelling and University
State Rep. Frank Hornstein: “I’m not hopeful we’ll get a transit safety agreement before next year.”
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Light rail and bus safety was a big issue when the 2020 Legislature convened in February. Lawmakers from both parties, as well as officials from the Met Council, all said something needed to be done about crime on and around Twin Cities transit.

Where the parties differed was whether the response would rely on more law enforcement or on using a new civilian corps to monitor trains and buses while also decriminalizing fare evasions and minor misconduct. 

A legislative compromise that included some of both approaches was in the works when the pandemic hit. And so transit safety, as with many issues, fell away as the Legislature’s attention became devoted to reacting to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. The prospects for addressing the issue became even dimmer after George Floyd was killed; aspects of the bills that once had DFL support no longer did.

And though there were two opportunities — one at the end of the regular session and one during the June special session — to revive the issue, both times it fell victim to partisan disagreements. Even now, with a July special session looming, the issue may have lost any chance of passing in 2020, with the new session expected to be dominated by another debate over Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers, a possible capital spending bill, a possible compromise on police reforms and more COVID-19 related bills.

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“That ship might have sailed,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, a DFLer from Minneapolis who chairs the House Transportation Finance and Policy subcommittee. “I’m not hopeful we’ll get a transit safety agreement before next year.” 

A compromise emerges — and disappears 

During the 2020 regular session of the Legislature, a compromise bill worked on by GOP Rep. Jon Koznick of Lakeville and DFL Rep. Brad Tabke of Shakopee incorporated some of each party’s priorities. It authorized civilian staff, to be known as “transit ambassadors,” to issue administrative citations that carried a first-time fine of $35. Currently, a ticket for fare evasion issued by a transit police officer comes with a $180 fine — akin in severity to committing an assault or driving under the influence.

State Rep. Jon Koznick
State Rep. Jon Koznick
Because the current penalty seems so severe, county attorneys don’t feel it worth their time to pursue court action against those who don’t pay, Tabke said, and only 3 percent of the fines are ever collected. 

The compromise also would have required the Met Council to craft a code of conduct, created a paid fare zone at stations where ticketless riders could be fined, beefed up lighting and security at stations and prohibited any reduction in the number of sworn Metro Transit Police officers. In addition, the proposal would have required mandatory bans from transit for anyone convicted of a gross misdemeanor (six months) or a felony (one year) if the crimes were committed on a bus or train or at stations.

Koznick said that compromise bill language recognized the “need for different policing techniques” by allowing for administrative instead of criminal citations. “I think it’s a good balance to have transit enforcement agents and task them a little bit different than what Democrats wanted, which was more of a feel-good type person handing out maps,” he said. “But we also have to have consequences and restore law and order within the transit system, or it’s just not going to be a viable mode of transportation and it’s not going to help these rioted areas become strong commercial areas again.”

State Rep. Brad Tabke
State Rep. Brad Tabke
In May, before the end of the regular session, there was a move to pass the measure as part of a transportation omnibus bill. But it was taken off the House agenda when other GOP policing amendments were offered and DFL leadership decided to accept the Senate version of the omnibus bill instead.

After the death of George Floyd, the policing aspects of the compromise bill that were once acceptable, if reluctantly, to both DFLers and activists became unacceptable, said Tabke. In response, during the June special session of the Legislature, he introduced a bill that contained only the creation of the civilian transit agents and the administrative citations.

At the same time, Walz submitted a pared-back supplemental budget request that included $3.7 million for Metro Transit security improvements and language that went further than the Tabke bill, proving money for “additional transit safety improvements and fare compliance measures on Metro Transit light rail and transitway service, including an administrative citations program, additional law enforcement staffing and enhanced monitoring.”

But like nearly everything else, the supplemental budget became immersed in the politics of how to respond to COVID-19, with Republicans arguing against any new spending in the wake of the economic impact of the pandemic and DFLers arguing that much of the money would come from the federal CARES Act. In the end, Walz’s budget request was rejected by the GOP-controlled Senate.

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Hornstein said he doesn’t think the Koznick-Tabke language had much support in the House GOP caucus beyond Koznick, even before the law enforcement sections were removed, and it would have even less now. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled Senate has done very little work on the issue. “Clearly, this was not something that Republicans as a whole were ready to embrace,” Hornstein said. “There is virtually no chance the Senate would have taken that language.”

A missed opportunity? 

Both Hornstein and Koznick thought the failure of the issue this year is unfortunate, given the conversations about policing and the need to rebuild communities damaged in the civic unrest that followed the death of Floyd.

“You would have unarmed personnel who would be charged with checking fares but they would be trouble-shooting all sorts of issues,” Hornstein said of the transit ambassadors idea. They could try to connect homeless people to housing and those with mental illness to services, he said, as well as provide extra sets of eyes and ears for uniformed transit police.” (The concept was also supported in a letter to Met Council leadership last week calling for reforms in response to the death of Floyd and the unrest that followed.)

State Rep. Frank Hornstein
State Rep. Frank Hornstein
“It’s keeping with a public safety approach that doesn’t involve sworn officers,” Hornstein said. 

Koznick agreed. “I think the issue has quite a bit of importance and as we look to the second special session,” he said. “Transit will play an important role in those areas becoming economically viable again. With the lack of confidence in public transit and public safety in those areas, it’s gonna be near impossible for some of those small businesses in those districts to become as vibrant as they were starting to become.”

But Koznick also thought the chances were slim for anything to happen this year. “I’m not sure this program would make the cut,” said Koznick on whatever budget language Senate Republicans would go along with. “It could. At a minimum, I think it could be a good win for transit if we at least were able to establish the administrative citation program and put some dollars around it down the road.”

The Met Council supports the Walz budget language and has also been trying to respond to safety issues via its current budget and authority. Among the initiatives Metro Transit put in place last year were increasing transit police hours; using plainclothes officers on trains; creating homelessness action teams; coordinating with nonprofits to reserve shelter beds for referrals; increasing staff on the agency’s “text for safety” program; and purchasing new cameras for trains that can be used to dispatch police officers.

“We have the full attention of Metro Transit and the Met Council on this issue,” Council Chair Charlie Zelle said in February. “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.”

Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
“We have the full attention of Metro Transit and the Met Council on this issue,” Council Chair Charlie Zelle said in February.