Transit advocates are hopeful that efforts to bolster safety and fare collection on Metro Transit buses and trains, seemingly stalled at the Legislature only a few weeks ago, may bear fruit in the waning weeks of the session.
They involve creation of an unarmed contingent of "uniformed transit safety officials" who would collect fares on light-rail trains and some buses, as well as connect homeless passengers and those with mental health or substance-abuse issues to available services.
Also, riders evading fares would be punished with an administrative citation akin to a parking ticket that would be enforced as a civil offense rather than a criminal misdemeanor.
The two efforts — using transit ambassadors to help with passenger safety and comfort and downgrading penalties for nonpayment of fares — have gained traction at other U.S. transit agencies.
It comes at a time when many communities, including locally, are rethinking the way police are deployed in the wake of George Floyd's murder last year.
Metro Transit has its own police force that engages in fare checks and investigates serious offenses. However, only 49 people were fined for failing to pay transit fares in 2018 and 2019 because prosecutors are inclined to pursue crimes more serious than a $180 fine for an unpaid $2 ticket, according to the Metropolitan Council.
The issue of transit safety long has been divisive at the Legislature. Bills similar to those now pending at the State Capitol, pitched after serious crime surged on light rail late in 2019, fizzled during last year's session.
"This is a way Metro Transit can lean into safety," said Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Met Council, which oversees public transportation in the metro area. "The problem is when it gets caught up in the narrative of police reform, which is very polarizing at the Capitol."
While the transit safety bill passed easily in the House and the Senate Transportation and Policy Committee, it stalled when the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee did not consider it.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said in a statement that the Judiciary committee, which he chairs, supported funding "Violent Crime Enforcement Teams" instead of transit ambassadors to address "the serious rise in crime on the light-rail routes."
The teams, he said, would combine officers from local law enforcement divisions to focus on the Twin Cities' Blue and Green light-rail lines and work with existing transit authorities.
But on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who chairs the Transportation Committee, noted that tenets of the transit safety bill could be incorporated into broader transportation legislation.
"I do think there's room to negotiate and come to an agreement on the transit-safety issue," he said.
Newman said earlier this spring that he had changed his mind about transit ambassadors and administrative citations, supporting the bill in his own committee that called for their formation.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the Senate bill, said Friday that he's hopeful an agreement can be reached this session.
Using both the ambassadors and administrative citations for fare evasion, he said in an e-mail, "will go far to improve the conditions on transit for all riders. We can make progress and pass meaningful reform in negotiations with the House on the final transportation package."
Metro Transit, which would pay for the ambassador program for the first two years, hopes to hire 54 ambassadors by 2023.
The transit agency has already developed partnerships with counties and organizations to deal with homeless passengers, substance abuse and mental health issues.
"People needing social services goes beyond the sphere of Metro Transit," Zelle said. "It's a societal issue. There's no one solution or easy answer. But it's really critical we create a safe and welcoming environment for everybody. It's a big aspiration."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752