Eight recommendations for Twin Cities light rail

The Star Tribune Editorial Board offers solutions it hopes will drive public policy decisions and an eventual rebound for Metro Transit's light-rail system.

Adopt a single-minded focus on passenger safety.

From Gov. Tim Walz to legislators, from Metropolitan Council head Charlie Zelle to Metro Transit General Manager Lesley Kandaras, key leaders must commit to rebuilding confidence in light rail. Minnesotans have made too great an investment — and are being asked to invest still more in future lines funded by a new transit sales tax — to wind up with a system they are too afraid to use. St. Louis, Mo., started with an outside, professional security analyst to recommend what would become that system's security overhaul.


A special report from the Star Tribune Editorial Board about making riders feel safe on light rail.

Metro Transit's current 40-point Safety and Security Action Plan lists as its goals improving conditions on the system, training and supporting employees, and engaging customers and partners. It's troubling that none of those goals clearly reflect the plan's title. Metro Transit should adopt and promote an unambiguous, unapologetic objective: the safety and security of its passengers and employees. That should drive a clearer vision of how to get there.

Reject a piecemeal approach to safety issues.

Metro Transit cannot continue to limp along with its severely understaffed police and security force. Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales says that where he has been able to increase law enforcement presence, "we see results." Riders have been clear that they want a greater security presence, whether it's sworn officers or uniformed staff, but they want them focused on safety and fare enforcement. That is not only reasonable, it's common sense.

Metro Transit plans to launch its Transit Ridership Intervention Program, using trained agents as a presence on rail cars and platforms. Unfortunately, it won't start until early next year and, when it does, it is authorized to hire just 22 such TRIP agents. Recognizing the difficulty of the current recruitment environment, Morales should be given the ability to increase pay and bonuses to the extent needed to draw quality applicants and to hire trained security agents. That would cost money, yes. But it would also show riders and would-be passengers that their safety is a top priority.

Enclose stations as both a symbol and a strategy.

Metro Transit and lawmakers should embrace Walz's proposal to enclose several of the most troubled LRT stations. But that should be just a starting point. The ultimate goal should be to enclose every station — even street-level stations — to restrict access to those who have paid fares. That would be a dramatic step — the kind needed to persuade riders and would-be passengers that safety is a priority, especially when coupled with additional security. Restricted entry should be a required feature of any new stations and lines still in development. Kandaras is correct to consider safety options that go beyond current efforts, but that must take the form of broad and visible actions to boost security.

It's a positive sign that Zelle told an editorial writer that his thinking on enclosures has changed and that retrofits are now actively being considered. Metro Transit should move quickly. Enclosing stations — potentially all of them over time — has to be part of the strategy.

Rely on professionals to bolster security.

Metro Transit should contract for a far greater number of private security agents. Train them in transit and code-of-conduct enforcement, and use them to provide a more immediate, uniformed presence on light rail. St. Louis, which has roughly the same number of LRT stations and about half the ridership, contracts for an average of 115 security agents to ride the rails and walk the platforms. Those agents work closely with police to provide a more seamless level of safety and customer engagement. Another 50 or so internal transit security specialists, trained but unarmed, help with other functions, further bolstering the three law enforcement agencies that provide the sworn officers. Together, they make up what MetroLink calls its "layered partnership." So adept have the security agents become that they handle an estimated 90% of all rider interactions.

Metro Transit's Kandaras acknowledges that the agency has had "good results" from the small number of private security agents hired to patrol specific stations earlier this year. In a recent report, Metro Transit officials noted the use of unarmed security guards at Lake Street/Midtown, Franklin Avenue and several transit centers and elsewhere. The Metropolitan Council recently signed a $6 million contract with Allied Universal for more security guards, but it was unwilling to disclose the number, citing security concerns.

Step up fare compliance efforts.

Checking fares is such a basic function. It is one of those signals that assures paying passengers that they are not chumps for having paid their fare but rather have done the right thing. There is no need to handle fare evaders harshly, as has sometimes happened in the past. But neither was it wise to stop checking fares. The Met Council announced earlier this month that fare enforcement will restart in December, using community service officers. This follows legislative approval earlier this year to issue administrative citations instead of police-issued tickets. Unfortunately, this effort may be hampered by the same staffing shortages that have hindered other efforts. Metro Transit recently confirmed it had 14 CSOs as of November. The 22 agents coming early next year should bolster those efforts. The agency also should be auditing fares regularly, so officials know with certainty the level of compliance. St. Louis conducts daily audits and enhanced weekly audits. The Twin Cities area should do the same.

Take a different approach to homelessness.

Metro Transit has relied on its internal homelessness action team to help with the growing issue of homeless individuals who ride the trains night and day as a sort of rolling warming shelter. Consisting of one civilian, three officers and a sergeant, the team has worked hard since its inception in 2018 and has connected several hundred adults and children to permanent housing. But that doesn't come close to meeting the need and may well be beyond the scope of what a transit system can tackle. Transit officials point out that they recently contracted with 10 social service organizations to connect individuals to social services. That's a promising step.

St. Louis contracts with Chestnut Health Services to provide four two-person teams that work 40 hours a week in each district. Their purpose: to address transit-related issues involving riders with addiction or mental health concerns. Transit security works alongside those teams and has received mental health awareness and de-escalation training. The team's mission is clear, limited in scope and transit-related: reducing loitering by "all-day" riders; addressing alcohol and drug use on the trains; reducing panhandling, argumentativeness, sleeping and other behaviors that can affect operations; providing early detection and intervention for riders in need of services; and improving communication between riders and security staff. The overarching goal? Improve the overall rider experience.

Adopt and publicize a new code of conduct that clearly and concisely spells out passenger behavior standards and consequences for violators.

Passengers are entitled to a higher standard than just not becoming the victim of a crime. To attract and win back the riders the system needs to thrive, there must be a sense of relative order and calm, where most people obey most of the rules, from not lighting up cigarettes and doing drugs to not drinking alcohol, threatening fellow passengers or subjecting them to sexual harassment. Security agents should have as part of their mission the enforcement of that code. Officials are working to update the current code, but it will do little good unless someone is there to ensure that the rules are followed.

Provide the public with a better online dashboard.

The public deserves to know — without extensive hunting around — if progress is being made on light-rail lines and which stations are most problematic at what times and days of the week. Breakdowns of incidents by station exist. They should be updated regularly and made easily accessible. A regularly updated and more detailed dashboard could help Metro Transit tell the story of a rebound, presuming officials follow the necessary steps to get a handle on safety and increase ridership. Rebuilding public confidence starts with greater transparency.

Minnesotans have invested billions of dollars in a multimodal transit system that features light rail at its core. The solutions presented here offer ways to preserve and build on that investment. But this is just a starting point. Since reporting on this project began, transit officials have signaled that they recognize the importance of rebuilding public trust. That's encouraging. In our view, doing otherwise is not an option.


Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune CEO and Publisher Steve Grove serves as an adviser to the board.



What ideas do you have for making light-rail transit safer and rebuilding public trust in the Twin Cities system? In addition to participating in the online commenting feature at the end of each of these articles, you can submit letters (up to 250 words) or commentaries (up to 700, for more complex arguments) here.