Christie Arevalo has a system for safely returning home from her job at a local dollar store if she needs to take the Blue Line.
The plan involves her fiancé, Henry Stanback, accompanying her from the Lake Street/Midtown light rail station back to St. Paul — especially at night. The busy stop has the highest level of criminal activity of all the Blue Line’s 14 stations outside of downtown Minneapolis.
“I worry about her safety,” he said.
While debate about rising crime on the Twin Cities’ light-rail lines has emerged at the Capitol this year, there’s been little discourse about ensuring passenger safety at Green and Blue Line stations. The stops serve as entry points to a light-rail system that ferries some 25 million passengers annually.
But a renewed emphasis on safety by Metro Transit and state lawmakers could have a positive spillover effect on the light rail system’s 37 stations. Two measures at the Legislature call for the creation of unarmed transit “ambassadors” to help safeguard the system — including stations — by enforcing fares and offering aid to the homeless and general assistance to passengers. That would free up Metro Transit police officers to tackle more serious crimes.
“What we’re trying to do is get more eyes and ears out across the transit system,” said Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, who authored one of the proposals.
Another measure, pitched by Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, calls for the Metropolitan Council to spend at least $2 million from its own budget for more “enforcement activities” on light-rail trains and at stations. Another Republican, Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska, has suggested an independent audit assessing safety on light rail, including a look at barriers or turnstiles at stations to deter fare evaders.
Talk about light-rail operations could have long-ranging consequences as construction continues on the $2 billion Southwest light-rail line. An extension of the existing Green Line, Southwest will feature 16 additional stations, with passenger service between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie beginning in 2023.
“The customer experience doesn’t start when you enter the train, it starts way before, including the station itself,” said Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle.
Panhandling, graffiti, syringes
One afternoon last week, a young man lounged at a fare machine in the Lake Street/Midtown station, holding a makeshift sign asking for money. He puffed on a cigarette as harried commuters hustled by, studiously avoiding eye contact. The dank station retained the stubborn odor of marijuana. Outside, discarded needles and beer cans were scattered near a pair of graffiti-tagged porta-potties.
“I feel unsafe all the time,” said Andre Mauldin, while waiting for a Blue Line train with his 7-year-old grandson. “You have people hanging out, people trying to get warm. It’s bad. We need protection. They need to do something.”
Michael Palmer, who said he is homeless, referred to the train as his “lifeline” to get to medical appointments. But often, he doesn’t feel safe at LRT stations because “the police fail to react.”
But other passengers said they don’t feel unsafe, although several women said they avoid the station at night.
In 2019, 272 crimes were reported at the Lake Street/Midtown station, about 20% of which were considered serious — a category that includes rape, robbery and aggravated assault. That’s about a 16% decrease over the previous year at the station, which had about 794,000 total boardings in 2019, according to Metro Transit.
Crime increased 152% at the Union Depot station last year, the final Green Line stop in St. Paul where about 809,000 passengers got on or off. The steep increase was driven by 586 reports of less serious incidents, such as fare evasion, vandalism, gambling, drug possession and theft.
Metro Transit attributed the hike to an increased police presence at the Union Depot station, particularly after service began shutting down there last summer at 2 a.m. so trains can be maintained and cleaned.
St. Paul’s corporate boosters support public transportation, but do worry about safety.
“If you talk to business owners in Lowertown, they say people come in from out of town and create havoc and [engage in] minor nuisance behaviors,” said B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
Of the five stations shared by the Green and Blue lines in downtown Minneapolis, the U.S. Bank Stadium stop has the highest incidence of crime — coinciding with a spike in serious crime in the growing Downtown East neighborhood.
Yingling Fan, a professor of regional planning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said that in terms of violent crime, “the number is pretty small when compared to other public spaces.”
Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell rolled out a new system in recent months in which cops are assigned a specific area akin to a traditional beat, including stations. This deployment is based on “crimes, trends, patterns and analysis,” giving problem areas more attention, he said.
“It’s their job to be there consistently, know the activities and know the people,” Frizell said.
While cameras on light-rail trains are being upgraded, the stations themselves are already outfitted with cameras for real-time surveillance. Frizell hopes to beef up this system with “seasoned officers” monitoring station cameras and dispatching officers when needed.
Metro Transit employs 141 full-time officers and 41 part-timers. Last year, the council spent $850,000 to pay for more overtime, and 20,000 additional hours of police time are planned this year. Zelle says he wouldn’t decline funding from the Legislature for more officers.
And two additional officers were recently assigned to the department’s Homeless Action Team, which connects homeless passengers to shelters and longer-term housing options.
“There’s no easy answer,” Zelle said. “We’re trying to address this in a humane way. But we can’t be a mobile social service agency.”