Every rider has the right to feel safe, comfortable and welcome when using the Metro Transit system. Today, unfortunately, too many riders are witnessing behavior that ranges from obnoxious (playing loud music) to unhealthy (smoking on buses and trains) to outright criminal activity.

This is not acceptable.

We are stepping up our game when it comes to safety on our transit system. As the new chair of the Metropolitan Council (which oversees Metro Transit), safety is one of my top priorities. One of the most effective steps we can take is to increase the level of supervision on our buses and trains. There must be an expectation that bad behavior will be noticed, reported and stopped.

A safe, efficient transit system is critical to the success of our region. Millions of people rely on transit to get to work and school, and the business community tells us that transit is mission critical to their ability to attract workers and customers.

Here’s what we’re doing with the resources we have today:

• Beefing up police presence on transit vehicles and in identified hot spots through overtime and partnerships with other law enforcement agencies.

• Installing better security cameras in transit vehicles with livestreaming capability.

• Doubling the staff monitoring in our “text for safety” program, making it possible for riders to quickly and anonymously report problems.

• We have also increased the staff dedicated to cleaning vehicles and improving public facilities like stops and stations.

While this work is a good start, we know it’s not enough.

To put it simply, we need to modernize the Metro Transit Police Department to meet the needs of our riders and growing system. With more than 1,000 train cars and buses on our system, we will never have enough officers to put on every train and bus in the metro area, nor should we. Police officers are best used to respond to more serious calls, such as criminal behavior or medical emergencies.

Assisting riders, checking fares, and observing and reporting incidents are jobs that could be more effectively performed by “transit ambassadors.” As part of a complete system of in-person observation combined with video monitoring and an effective police response, a transit ambassador program would both improve customer service and deter incidents.

Our current system is broken. We have a law that diverts police officers from more important public safety concerns and allows fare-dodgers to repeat their offenses over and over without penalty. It’s time to rethink and revise the system.

Under our current system, only a police officer can write a fare evasion ticket. That’s because Minnesota law classifies a $2.50 fare-dodging as a misdemeanor, like drunken driving and assault. While one would think that a criminal charge carrying a $180 fine would be a significant deterrent, the fact is that prosecutors have more urgent cases to dedicate their resources to, and judges are likely to dismiss a $2.50 offense. Last year, nearly 1,500 fare-dodging tickets were issued, which should have resulted in more than $230,000 in fines. Yet less than $7,000 was collected. Most violators got off without paying anything.

This session, we’re asking the Minnesota Legislature to make fare-dodging a petty misdemeanor. The offense would carry a fine of about $35, equal to the fine on an expired parking meter. While it may seem counterintuitive to decrease the fine, this change would allow transit ambassadors to write fare evasion tickets, freeing police to take on higher-level offenses and keep our riders safe. But we need both authority and funding from the Legislature to put this in place.

As the past CEO of a multistate, scheduled-route bus company and the past commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, I’ve been engaged in leading safety cultures for more than 35 years. I know from firsthand experience that public transportation is a lifeline for millions of people. Not only is it the only mode of traveling for some, it helps expand business development and work opportunities for the communities we serve.

Safety doesn’t happen with good intentions or any single action. Safety is the result of hard work and collaboration. I’m looking forward to working with legislators, other policymakers and our communities and regional partners on this key, critical mission for the Met Council. We can return to an atmosphere of safety, comfort and belonging for every transit rider.

We can and must do better.

 

Charlie Zelle was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz in January to chair the Metropolitan Council, which is the parent organization of Metro Transit. Zelle has also served as the CEO of Jefferson Bus Lines and the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.