Of the nearly 39 million rides taken by Metro Transit passengers last year, 49 citations were issued by police to riders who didn't pay their fares. In 2021, only 10 citations were written for fare evasion.

The scant number of citations seems to suggest the transit agency has abandoned sweeping efforts to penalize riders who get on board without paying. Spokesman Drew Kerr said Metro Transit is committed to improving fare compliance, but conceded: "We can always do better."

Now some state lawmakers appear determined to fix Metro Transit's fare collection system, even though four previous efforts at the Capitol have failed.

Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, plans to introduce a bill making it easier to punish fare dodgers by issuing them an administrative citation, akin to a parking ticket, rather than threatening them with a misdemeanor bearing a possible $180 fine — a rarely pursued penalty that is essentially meaningless, he said.

Elkins and Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, also want to give non-police personnel authority to cite transit passengers who don't pay. Only Metro Transit police officers now can issue such citations and only after a previous warning. In 2022, 542 such warnings were issued; in 2021, 689 were.

The debate on how to counter fare evasion comes as Metro Transit attempts to lure back customers who fled during the COVID-19 pandemic and assure them the system is safe to ride despite recent reports showing that crime last year on trains and buses — mostly simple assaults and nuisance violations such as drug use and liquor law violations — increased by 54%.

Transit officials attribute the problem to vacancies in the Metro Transit Police Department, which is down by more than 90 full- and part-time police officers due to a persistent hiring shortage. Police are tending to more urgent public safety needs, they say.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said the measures have a "100 percent chance of passing" now that Democrats dominate at the Capitol, though a similar effort generated bipartisan support last year.

Passengers taking Metro Transit's light-rail and bus rapid transit lines and Northstar Commuter Rail are supposed to pay for their tickets before boarding or use a transit pass. If they don't, it's considered a low-level offense and, according to critics, not aggressively pursued by city and county attorneys.

An audit conducted by the Metropolitan Council in 2020 found that only about 2.6% of the citations issued by Metro Transit police resulted in any payment. If fines are ultimately paid, Metro Transit doesn't even get the money — it goes to the court.

"The citation is out of proportion to the offense and never followed through in the court system," Dibble said.

Failing to buy a transit ticket shouldn't be a misdemeanor, said Sam Rockwell, executive director of Move Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable transportation. He said such a policy disproportionately singles out people of color for criminal prosecution.

"It is crazy that someone who fails to pay a $2 transit fare faces a permanent criminal record while someone who fails to pay a $5 parking meter charge pays a fine and gets to move on with their life," Rockwell said.

Staying the course

A key component in the proposed legislation to improving fare compliance involves permitting community service officers and other Metro Transit personnel to cite passengers for not paying their fares.

Using non-police personnel to check fares is in line with transit agencies in other cities, according to a report last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The relationship between police officers and vulnerable communities aboard public transit can be "complicated with over-policing," the report notes.

In 2017, video footage of a part-time Metro Transit officer asking a Blue Line passenger his immigration status while checking his fare went viral on social media, causing a furor.

Unlike many transit systems across the United States, stations in the Twin Cities aren't enclosed with gates or turnstiles to deter those who don't pay. St. Louis was the same way, until officials there decided to retrofit 39 MetroLink light-rail stations with gates and turnstiles, making it a "closed system" as part of a broader effort to improve security.

The $52 million project — $11 million of which is being paid for by corporate donors — is underway.

"We're focusing on creating as much of a security bubble as possible," said Kevin Scott, general manager of Bi-State Development, St. Louis' transit operator. "It moves problematic behavior away from our system."

Retrofitting Metro Transit's stations with gates and turnstiles would be "extremely challenging," Kerr said, given that most of them were built at-grade and in an urban environment. Ticket machines would have to be moved, he said, and there would be challenges related to accessibility, snow removal and maintenance.

Some transit agencies have opted for even more dramatic solutions to address fare evasion — even to the extent of making public transportation free, as a way to achieve equity and boost ridership decimated by the pandemic. Kansas City, Mo., so far is the largest city nationwide to give free transit a try.

There has been no serious talk among Metro Transit officials about doing the same, especially since some $46 million was collected in fare revenue last year.

For now, Kerr said, Metro Transit will stay the course. "The most effective deterrent to fare noncompliance and other bad behaviors," he said, "is to build a stronger official presence on transit."

Correction: Previous versions of this story misstated the number of rides taken by Metro Transit passengers last year. It should be nearly 39 million. Also, the number of previous efforts at the Capitol to fix Metro Transit’s fare collection system was misstated. It should be four.