Troubling testimony from a pair of light-rail train operators last week underscored the growing concerns of too many Twin Cities LRT riders.
Operators Jerry Ziegler and Honey Darling told a legislative commission that they often fear for their own safety. All too frequently, they said, they see criminal behavior on their trains, including drug deals, assaults, and alcohol and drug use.
To address those problems and improve safety, transit official recently announced two important technological changes: Real-time surveillance cameras will be installed on the system’s 91 trains, and (subject to approval) officers will be outfitted with body cameras.
Now legislators and transit leaders are suggesting another step that, at first blush, might seem counterproductive. The proposal calls for decriminalizing light-rail fare evasion, reducing the offense from a misdemeanor with $180 fine to a petty misdemeanor and a $35 fine that could be paid online. The plan also would add an unspecified number of uniformed “transit ambassadors” who could issue tickets and be an official presence on trains.
Reducing the offense to a petty misdemeanor would give ambassadors the authority to issue citations; only sworn transit officers can do so now, and their time is better spent on more serious violations. Adding the uniformed ambassadors, and giving them the ability to write tickets, should result in less fare evasion but could also produce more fine revenue because the $180 misdemeanor cases are rarely prosecuted.
DFL legislators who are expected to sponsor the measure to decriminalize nonpayment also argue that it would better align the punishment with the crime of skipping out on fares that range from 50 cents to $3.25.
It’s a sound proposal — but only as one component of a larger strategy to improve transit safety. Another smart bill, authored by a GOP legislator, calls for outside experts to evaluate LRT safety and make recommendations.
Transit officials estimate that about 20% of the more than 25 million Green Line and Blue Line rides in 2019 were taken for free. Officials told an editorial writer that Metro Transit officers issued 5,000 warnings and 1,296 citations for failure to pay in 2019. Only 3% of those fines were paid, partly because the overwhelming majority of citations aren’t pursued by county attorneys who have more serious cases to handle.
As transit ridership has increased, so have problems with crime and rowdy, harassing behavior. Metro Transit figures show that violent crime — including rape, robbery and aggravated assault — increased by 35% in 2019 on buses and LRT trains over the previous year. Property crime, including theft and arson, increased 26%. Overall, serious crime on public transit increased by 29% last year over 2018.
The Twin Cities transit system is a major regional and state asset that must be protected. It was built with major taxpayer investment and is on the verge of being expanded with even more public dollars. The Metropolitan Council is seeking a $929 million federal grant from the Federal Transit Administration to extend the system to the southwestern suburbs. The $2 billion Southwest light-rail line that’s under construction would connect downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
But that investment and positive outcomes for the new lines could be in jeopardy if safety problems continue. There should be bipartisan legislative support for the independent assessment of LRT safety as well as lower fines for fare evasion and the ambassadors program.
Commuters, out-of-town visitors and other potential users will find other ways to get where they’re going if they feel the trains are too dangerous or unruly. The LRT system has a growing image problem, and the poor reviews are mostly justified. It will take a multifaceted strategy to rebuild the public’s faith.