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Minnesota lawmakers look to reset ‘culture of what it is to be a transit rider’

The Transit Service Intervention Project would start with an intensive, three-month effort with both social service workers and law enforcement to connect people with services while also enforcing the rules.

State Rep. Brad Tabke’s proposal would require the Met Council to develop a code of conduct for transit riders and then create a two-phase plan to enforce it.
State Rep. Brad Tabke’s proposal would require the Met Council to develop a code of conduct for transit riders and then create a two-phase plan to enforce it.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

In his first term in the Minnesota House in 2019, Rep. Brad Tabke was one of legislators trying to broker a bipartisan agreement on Metro Transit safety. Back then, the discussion surrounded shifting fare enforcement from police officers to civilian staff and swapping expensive misdemeanor violations rarely prosecuted with citations similar to parking tickets.

Four years later, Tabke — who uses bus and light rail to get to and from the Capitol from his home in Shakopee — no longer thinks the so-called transit ambassadors program is enough. The state and Metro Transit need to do more, and quickly, to reduce crime and misbehavior on the Metro Transit system, especially the Blue and Green light rail lines, he said.

“As I was riding transit it became very clear from the first couple of days that what we wanted to do for safety wasn’t a viable solution, maybe a 20-to-30% solution at best,” Tabke said last week. “We need something else to move the needle in the culture of safety and efficiency and comfort of using the trains.”

Tabke, a DFLer who is vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he wants the bill to move quickly in order to get the work started before summer when bad behavior and criminal activity increases on trains. A hearing is set for Feb. 23 and after a stop in the House Ways and Means Committee, he hopes it can move to the House floor. 

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Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is the lead on the plan in the Senate.

Conversations with the Met Council, advocates, transit police and transit riders led Tabke to a plan to “reset in the culture of what it is to be a transit rider.” His proposal would require the Met Council to develop a code of conduct for transit riders and then create a two-phase plan to enforce it. Called the Transit Service Intervention Project, the first three-week phase would mobilize social service workers and advocates for people who are homeless as well as for those living with mental illness and addiction. They would work to get people into housing or services.

State Rep. Brad Tabke no longer thinks the so-called transit ambassadors program is enough.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Brad Tabke no longer thinks the so-called transit ambassadors program is enough.
“Just being homeless and riding the train is not a problem. But smoking on the train is a problem, drug use on the train is a problem. We are tackling those issues so people who need help can get help,” Tabke said.

The second phase, lasting another nine weeks, would team these workers with law enforcement — both Metro Transit police and officers from cities the light rail trains pass through — to continue the social services interventions and enforce the code of conduct. The bill includes giving police officers the authority to remove people who violate the code from trains and platforms.

Coordinating the work of the various government and nonprofit entities would be done by a project manager appointed by the governor. It also includes a task force made up of people from the state departments of Public Safety, Human Services, the Met Council, the counties and cities in which light rail passes, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota and other advocacy groups. The project would be evaluated after the first three months to determine if it should continue or be modified. It isn’t yet clear how much the programs outlined in the bill would cost. “It’s important for people to understand that this is the start of what we hope is a sea change in safety and comfort of riding the trains,” Tabke said. If it works, more people will ride the trains, which will also help with safety.

The code of conduct could go beyond the misdemeanors cited in the draft bill which include playing loud music, smoking, eating, littering and bringing a non-service animal onto trains. Tabke said he expected it would include drug use, threatening other riders and damaging trains.

The bill specifically prohibits the code to penalize people “sleeping in a manner that does not otherwise violate conduct requirements.”

Met Council is on board

During a virtual listening session Friday, participants were mostly supportive but were concerned that the interventions target only behaviors that are disruptive and dangerous and not just those that are annoying. A person without a home who eats on a train is less of a problem than someone who smokes, uses drugs or threatens other riders, participants said.

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Others raised concerns about racial equity and social justice, fearing enforcement would fall more heavily on low-income and people of color.

“A misdemeanor is small but they also contribute deeply to racial inequities,” said Amity Foster, a transit rider and advocate. “I’d just like to flag that. I don’t have a solution but we should be aware of that as we roll this out. It’s gonna have impact bigger than transit safety, or it could.”

Ryan Timlin, the president and business agent for the transit drivers union ATU Local 1005, suggested placing special emphasis on hot spots — routes, times and stations where illegal activity is more common. He expressed sympathy for helping people without homes or who are addicted to drugs, “but they can’t be doing that stuff on the system. It’s not good for anybody.”

Met Council spokesperson John Schadl said the council is aware of and supportive of the Tabke proposal.

“We are pleased to participate in this effort and look forward to working with the Legislature this year to address transit safety and security, as it is a top priority of ours as well,” Schadl said.

A sign depicting what’s not allowed on a Metro Transit vehicle.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A sign depicting what’s not allowed on a Metro Transit vehicle.
The Met Council has been trying to respond to the crime and rider comfort for more than a year, with mixed results. It has a 25-point safety and security action plan that includes more police and more staff on real-time system monitoring and response to texts and calls from riders. It is patrolling trains and stations more frequently, the council says, and it is continuing a Homeless Action Team. It is also expanding its data collection and sharing work.

“It is our highest priority,” Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle told the Senate Transportation Committee last month. “If we don’t have a safe and welcoming environment for our customers, we can’t expect our customers to return and use our service.”

Zelle also told the committee the Met Council is going to hire private security contractors to patrol hot spots full time. The Council recently announced the hiring of a new transit police chief, Ernest Morales, III, who is expected to be on duty before the safety intervention plan begins.

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Transit ambassadors

The transit ambassadors concept — which Tabke promises will have a different name this year — was meant to take on fare evasion. Current law requires commissioned police officers to issue citations. But because the offense is relatively minor but the penalty severe — $180 — it left prosecutors in Hennepin and Ramsey unlikely to take cases to court.

Civilians, like parking enforcement staff, could write a ticket akin to a parking ticket that might carry a fine of $35 and not require a court appearance. The ambassadors could also help riders navigate the system and would be able to radio to transit police to report crimes or disturbances. At the same time, police officers could devote time to crimes, not whether someone paid a fare of a few dollars.

Some, but not all, Republicans considered the ambassadors concept soft on crime and kept it from passing for four legislative sessions. While the DFL has the legislative clout to pass it this year, Tabke said his experience has convinced him that stronger interventions are needed.

The ambassadors program has been used in other cities, including the Bay Area of California on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system.