Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Metro Transit's move to enforce payment of fares aboard light-rail trains is commendable and a needed first step toward restoring order.
The open question is whether the agency can maintain enough of a security presence to perform frequent and regular fare checks, as well as enforcement of its new code of conduct.
To kick off its highly publicized crackdown this week, Metro Transit deployed 12 community service officers (CSOs), typically trainees for careers in law enforcement. Previously, only licensed police officers could write criminal citations for fare evasion, but a long-sought and overdue change at the Legislature earlier this year allowed for less costly administrative citations that could be issued by other than law enforcement.
Tickets now will range from $35 for a first offense, payable in 90 days, to $55 for a second offense and $75 for a third offense. A third ticket also would earn the offender a 60-day ban from accessing transit services. A fourth offense would up the fine again and double the ban.
"This is one prong in a multipronged approach, but we do think it will be a positive step," Metro Transit General Manager Lesley Kandaras said in announcing the new policy.
The strategy sends a more serious message to passengers that they are expected to pay fares for the privilege of riding. It is a reminder, along with the conduct code, that such a privilege comes with conditions. However, the key to making this more than an empty threat is frequent and consistent enforcement across all the hours rail lines are in operation.
Like all law enforcement, the Metro Transit police force has been plagued by chronic staffing shortages. The system has far fewer police than it is authorized to have. Even CSOs have been in exceptionally short supply.
Earlier, Kandaras told an editorial writer that the agency planned to hire 22 more enforcement agents as part of its Transit Rider Improvement Program in coming months.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board recently published an in-depth special report exploring public safety on Twin Cities light-rail lines. The reporting for the project included a visit to St. Louis, where transit officials are employing a passenger-safety-first model. As part of that effort, they'll be enclosing all light-rail platforms, requiring a paid fare for access.
The Editorial Board project offered eight potential solutions, including the fare crackdown that Metro Transit is now embarking on, along with a clearer and more strictly enforced passenger code of conduct. The code, Metro Transit officials have said, makes clear that riders can be removed from transit for violations of the code or illegal acts. Only officers can forcibly remove a passenger, but other authorized personnel can issue warnings that unruly passengers will be asked to leave.
But for all of this to be more than public relations, it is essential that Metro Transit have a plan for frequent and consistent enforcement. We urge the system's leaders to do what other cities, including St. Louis, have done and hire enough trained security guards to close the gaps, deal with ongoing staff shortages and achieve regular enforcement. Kandaras previously acknowledged to an editorial writer that deployment of a small number of security guards at some of the most troubled stations had brought good results over the summer.
Stepped-up enforcement does more than just collect extra fares: It sends a message to passengers that provides a tangible reward for doing the right thing, paying their fare and abiding by the code. And it provides surer consequences for those who do not.
There is more work to be done to make light-rail transit safe for passengers — no matter what time of day or night they are traveling. Ultimately, the Editorial Board recommends securing all light-rail stations and closing access to all but paying passengers.
However, a stronger, more pervasive security presence is a critical first step and will remain key to passenger safety. That is going to require more than the modest force currently being mustered.