Lisa Webb purposely sits with her back against the front of the Green Line train when she rides to her job at a north metro fast food restaurant from her home on St. Paul's East Side. From her perch, she's seen a woman stabbed near the train and passengers using drugs and smoking. Some she sees are mentally ill and need help.
Webb, who must use transit because she doesn't own a car, minds her own business but admits she often feels afraid. "The cops," she said, "are barely around."
Stories like Webb's have evolved into a widespread perception in recent years that riding the Green and Blue light rail lines is unsafe. That narrative works against Metro Transit's efforts to bring back passengers lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it challenges the plans of the Metropolitan Council — which oversees Metro Transit — to develop more light rail and bus lines throughout the Twin Cities.
And it raises questions — particularly among the Met Council's many critics — as to whether the multibillion-dollar transit systems, funded with public money, are being effectively managed.
Reflecting the precipitous drop in ridership that occurred when COVID took hold 2 1/2 years ago, reported crimes on Metro Transit buses and trains declined from 2020 to 2021. But as ridership has slowly returned, reported crimes are up 29% through the end of September when compared with the same period last year.
Metro Transit says that's largely due to a 150% increase in narcotics violations in the same period, including a 359% surge in drug equipment violations.
Over the past two months, a Star Tribune reporter and photographer spent dozens of hours at light-rail stations and on board the trains interviewing passengers, transit workers and police officers about their experiences. Most of the time spent aboard the trains was uneventful, even mundane.
But there were so-called "nuisance" incidents — drug use, smoking, partying and erratic behavior, along with some filthy stations — to make a few trips unpleasant.
The situation, which was already worrisome in 2019, has been magnified by the pandemic. Emptier trains means there are fewer people to discourage unwanted behaviors. There's more disorder, said Polly Hanson, director of Security, Risk and Emergency Management for the American Public Transportation Association in Washington, D.C.
"An LRT car is a confined environment. That's why perceptions of safety are different than on the street," Hanson said. "During COVID, the people who were [taking transit] for legitimate activity were at home, and that lack of ridership just highlights the disorder."
Metro Transit adopted a 40-point Action Plan last summer to improve transit safety, using feedback from customers, employees and others to develop recommendations ranging from shorter trains to more police. It will be reviewed quarterly to find out what works.
Such plans may seem immaterial to passengers like Maria Canas of Crystal. She takes the Blue Line to her job at the Mall of America and says she mostly feels safe. But recently two people had sex on the train not far from where she was sitting.
"I didn't know what to do," she said. So she sank down in her seat and pretended to sleep.
It's midmorning on a Tuesday, and Metro Transit police officers Amy Keyes and Chrystal Carter board the southbound Blue Line at U.S. Bank Stadium to check fares. If someone didn't pay, they're told to get off at the next station and buy a ticket. Some are issued warnings. Occasionally they find riders with outstanding warrants.
On this day, people are generally polite. "Can you put an officer on every train?" said one passenger, a psychology student at the University of Minnesota. "I've seen a lot of really frightening things." Other passengers, Keyes said, "look at you with disgust or make negative comments."
But both like the variety of the work. "You're never bored," Carter said.
They identify certain "hot spots" among light-rail stations that require more attention than others, such as Franklin Avenue and Lake Street/Midtown on the Blue Line, and Central Station and Snelling Avenue on the Green Line. When asked if they would let family members ride light rail, they said it depends on the time of day.
In building back ridership to pre-pandemic numbers, Metro Transit must deal with the fallout of mental illness, substance and alcohol addiction, rising crime, homelessness and a tight job market — societal and economic issues over which they have little control, but which can profoundly affect choices made by transit customers and persuade them to stay away.
"If a person can't care for themselves, if you feel like they could harm themselves or others, then you have to intervene," Keyes said. That usually involves transporting the passenger to a care facility.
At the Lake Street/Midtown Station, Carter jokes with three people who are sharing a box of Fruity Pebbles cereal, complete with milk, bowls and plastic spoons. A man approaches and asks for his share, dousing the cereal with a liquid that's definitely not milk. It's unclear whether any of them are waiting for a train.
Nearby, Keyes asks a woman to stop vaping. Her request is ignored. The glass on one of the station's doors is broken, and other doors and windows are boarded up with plywood. Someone left behind a pair of pants.
A northbound train approaches. "Let's hop," Carter says, and climbs aboard.
Too few police
Most people interviewed said they would welcome an increased police presence on the trains themselves, and not just in vehicles parked near stations.
"Metro Transit police don't do a thing," said Abdirizack Ismael of Minneapolis, as he waited for a train at the Lake Street/Midtown Station. "After George Floyd, they became powerless. They don't live in this community, they live elsewhere and they're mostly white."
Despite a recent salary bump and a $39 million annual budget, attracting new officers has been challenging for the Metro Transit police. Fewer people are pursuing law enforcement careers in the wake of Floyd's murder in 2020 and its aftermath. Many department veterans are retiring or moving on.
As of Sept. 27, Metro Transit police was staffed at only 64% of its fully-funded complement, with 109 full-time officers and 51 part-time. The budget includes funding for 70 community service officers — unarmed officers-in-training who patrol trains and buses — but only 14 have been hired so far.
Moreover, the department's Homeless Action Team, which connects homeless passengers with social services, is not fully staffed. Nor is the Real Time Information Center, where workers monitor activity at light-rail stations from a central command post in Minneapolis.
Frequent Green Line rider Stephane Coleman, who works at the U, said she'd like to see a greater police presence on the trains but understands they're spread thin.
Combating mental illness and homelessness requires a multipronged approach that goes beyond what Metro Transit can do, she said. In the meantime, she said, "You've got to be smart and mindful when taking public transportation."
Private security guards David White and Abdi Mohamed strolled around the Franklin Avenue Station one day in mid-September, greeting Blue Line passengers and telling others not using the train to move along.
Both men were unarmed, part of Metro Transit's Action Plan that calls for posting guards-for-hire at problematic light-rail stations around the clock. The Met Council hired Bloomington-based BelCom Inc. to provide security at the station through December for $175,000.
The idea is to increase an "official presence" to make people feel more secure, said Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra.
"It's all in how you talk to people," White said. "It's sad. People got all kinds of issues. If they got no home, where do they go?"
Mohamed agreed. With homelessness and mental illness, he said, "you need to understand their situation. You want to treat them the way you want to be treated."
Metro Transit wants to post security guards at the Lake Street/Midtown Station next, but private security firms are also finding it difficult to recruit employees. And transit officials need to figure out a way for the working guards to take a break and use a restroom.
One of the most frequent complaints heard from Blue and Green line regulars involves smoking and drug use on the trains. One day last month, bright orange needle caps littered the train tracks at the Franklin Avenue Station.
"They have no shame doing drugs in front of the kids," said Monica Reyes, who was boarding the train at the Blue Line's Franklin Avenue Station with her two young children.
Diana Cook of Crystal, who takes the Green Line from Target Field Station to her job at the U, said her biggest beef is people smoking "all kinds of things" on the train. While in college, she worked on a performance tour for country musician Willie Nelson, known for his enthusiastic use of marijuana.
"Sometimes the train will pull up and the doors will open, smoke billowing out. It looks like Willie Nelson's tour bus," Cook said.
Green Line operator Lisa Callahan, a 25-year Metro Transit veteran, said smoke seeping into her cab is a serious concern. "It's a headache," she said.
Rick Grates, interim chief of the Metro Transit Police Department, finds the smoking problem frustrating.
"If you would have told me a couple years ago that people smoke on trains, I would have laughed at you," he said. "It's like going into a restaurant and lighting up and saying, 'What are you going to do about it?' "
Another challenge for officers and passengers: the use of trains and stations as places to party.
At 11 p.m. one day last month, a Green Line train pulled up at U.S. Bank Stadium to a full-on party. Roughly 30 people were gathered in a circle, drinking and smoking weed as a boom box blared.
About six Metro Transit officers approached the group. "Get going, guys. Disperse," commanded one of them. Another officer took a woman's bottle of booze and poured it on the tracks.
A nearby train was held up because someone was blocking the door. A frustrated operator called over the train's public address system: "C'mon, man. We gotta go."