The news release issued by Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, and supported by the Star Tribune Editorial Board (“Big ideas for safer light-rail transit,” Nov. 9), outlining an emphasis on transit safety for the upcoming legislative session, came as an interesting surprise.

Welcome aboard, Rep. Torkelson. Too bad you stalled almost every effort at support when you chaired the Transportation Committee.

In our “Drive ’Til You Drop” culture, successful transit requires successful marketing. We don’t use congestion pricing or other disincentives to limit cars. Transit is expected to attract its own riders, while almost every jurisdiction and developer for a century has bent over backward to make driving the easiest or only choice.

Transportation is the biggest contributor to climate change, and we’re almost out of time.

So, at the risk of political incorrectness, this must be acknowledged: Transit must not only be absolutely safe and clean to justify its investment; it must also be perceived that way by those with choices.

Our society has a racism problem, a homeless problem, a disparity problem, a hope problem, an equality problem, a health problem — and these and others can surface disproportionately on transit, in the minds of those with choices. Your actual chances of harm on transit are much less than injury from cars, but perception is all.

Light rail on the honor system generally works, but it does mean stations and trains are open to uses and incidents that simply don’t belong on a multibillion-dollar investment we are counting on as an alternative to the personal, private automobile. Honor systems require norms, and a single shot or punch or urination on or near a single train or bus can neutralize hundreds of quiet rides in the minds of those who can otherwise pay extra for gas and parking in order to feel absolutely safe. We must not tolerate on transit behaviors that don’t belong anywhere in civil society.

That said, Rep. Torkelson, there is an obvious step you and fellow Republican leaders can easily take: Drop transit, including rail transit, as a wedge issue to demonize progressives, people of color, urban dwellers, environmentalists and anyone who believes public policy can and must address a growing list of emergencies the private sector has not. Welcome aboard.


Mathews Hollinshead is a transit representative on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board.