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Provision to decriminalize Metro Transit fare violations fails to make it into transportation bill at Legislature

Moving to civil citations for fare violations and using transit ambassadors for enforcement have been priorities for both the Metropolitan Council and DFLers in the Minnesota House. 

Nonpayment of fares will continue to be penalized with a $180 misdemeanor fine, a disconnect between punishment and violation that has led tickets to be infrequently issued — and rarely prosecuted.
Nonpayment of fares will continue to be penalized with a $180 misdemeanor fine, a disconnect between punishment and violation that has led tickets to be infrequently issued — and rarely prosecuted.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

Remember that apparent deal between Minnesota Senate Republicans and House DFLers to decriminalize nonpayment of fares on Metro Transit buses and trains?

Never mind. 

After two years of trying — even after a leading opponent changed his mind on shifting fare violations from criminal sanctions to something akin to a parking ticket — the provision did not make it into the Minnesota Legislature’s omnibus transportation bill posted this week. That means nonpayment of fares will continue to be penalized with a $180 misdemeanor fine, a disconnect between punishment and violation that has led tickets to be infrequently issued — and rarely prosecuted. Also out of the final bill: allowing fare enforcement to be handled by a new corps of non-police transit personnel similar to Minneapolis’ Downtown Improvement District staff, an approach that has used in other cities to de-escalate confrontations.

House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein said the issue was discussed during negotiations, “but in the end it was one of the items left and the Senate didn’t agree.”

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Both the civil citations and the transit ambassadors had been priorities of the Metropolitan Council and House DFLers. Republicans, however, expressed worry that it could make transit less safe at a time when crime was a concern of riders and law enforcement.

Still, a breakthrough seemed possible earlier this session when Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Newman, an influential Republican from Hutchinson, appeared to change his position. “Last year, when this came forward, I have to admit I was rather intransigent in my belief that we had to maintain the criminal penalties,” Newman said during a meeting of his committee March 1. “I have changed my mind on that.” 

State Sen. Scott Newman
State Sen. Scott Newman
Newman said he would work with Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis, the DFL’s transportation lead, to resolve final differences. Said Newman: “Just wish us luck.” 

It wasn’t enough, even though similar language had already received strong bipartisan support in the House Transportation Committee. Newman was not available to comment Monday, but Hornstein said he was told that the bulk of the Senate GOP caucus wasn’t in agreement on the issue. “We’ll continue to fight for our position because it makes no sense that fare evasion on transit is a misdemeanor punishable by a $180 fine when someone pays $30 for a parking ticket,” said Hornstein, a Minneapolis DFLer.

Between the start of the 2019 session and this year, the GOP position had gone from “heck no” to “maybe yes.” The difference between then and now is that legislators from both parties worked over the summer and fall to learn about the issue — and seek some common responses to it. Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, had led the interim work on the issue with former Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee. Metro Transit also used the interim between sessions to implement changes in response to GOP complaints about crime and safety on  the system. 

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Fare evasion is mostly a problem on light rail and bus rapid transit lines, where fares are collected at stations, not by drivers. Enforcement therefore requires people — currently, police officers — to board vehicles and ask riders to show proof of payment. Even when tickets are written, county attorneys have not considered it time well spent to prosecute violators, given other demands on attorney time. Fewer than 5 percent of fare violations have ever seen court sanctions. 

While included in the House version of the transportation bill, the civil citations and the transit ambassadors disappeared during closed negotiations sessions with the Senate. When the bill emerged this week, both provisions were gone.

Charlie Zelle, the chair of the Metropolitan Council, said in a statement that he was disappointed in the failure to change the fare enforcement system. “The Metropolitan Council has pursued this language since the 2019 session because it is an opportunity to develop a fairer and more effective approach to fare inspection,” Zelle said. “Without administrative citations authority, we remain at status quo. Citations may only be issued by police officers and will continue to be misdemeanor violations.”

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Additional transit funding

While Hornstein was disappointed in the result on fare enforcement, he said he was happy with the funding for transit in general. While the DFL had favored an increase in fuel taxes to increase spending on both roads and transit, the budget uses $57 million in cash that is available now to pay for one new bus rapid transit line, the E line, and for most of the funding for another, the F line. That comes on top of funding for two other lines in a state bonding bill passed last fall. That provided funds for the B and D lines of bus rapid transit (BRT). “That means within the last year, if you include the bonding bill, we have now four lines funded,” Hornstein said. “I’m very happy.”

State Rep. Frank Hornstein
State Rep. Frank Hornstein
Bus rapid transit uses buses that allow front and back loading and unloading with ticketing at stations for faster boarding. Stations are farther apart than on traditional bus routes and buses have some signal prioritization. They tend to be routed along the most-used transit corridors and intersect with the Green and Blue light rail lines. Existing BRT lines are the A Line on Snelling and the C Line from Brooklyn Center to downtown Minneapolis.

According to Metro Transit, the E Line would follow Bus Route 6 on France, Hennepin and University avenues. The F Line would serve the Central Avenue corridor to Blaine now served by Bus Route 10. The B Line would follow bus route 21 from West Lake Street to downtown St. Paul via Marshall and Selby avenues. And the D Line would travel the path of bus route 5, from Mall of America to the Brooklyn Center transit station via downtown Minneapolis.

The budget also provides state funding for a second Amtrak train per day to Chicago.