Faced with languishing ridership, Metro Transit is cleaning up its trains, adding more police on the light-rail lines and improving its technology to make riding the bus more reliable.
In addition, the transit agency said its new plan to improve service quality includes investing in promising new bus routes and launching an anti-harassment campaign rewarding passengers who exhibit “positive behavior,” according to Wes Kooistra, Metro Transit’s newly appointed general manager.
“Our customers want to feel safe, they want facilities to be comfortable and clean, and they expect fellow riders to be respectful,” Kooistra said Tuesday. “Customers are tired of people smoking pot and cigarettes on the trains, they want trash to be cleaned up and they want the unsanitary conditions to be addressed. And we want that, too.”
The improvements, some of which have already been rolled out, will cost about $1.5 million from Metro Transit’s $55 million reserve fund.
But Kooistra stressed that fund will be spent on operations by 2023, adding the Legislature must step up with a sustainable funding stream for local transit to maintain the enhancements.
“We’ve held vacancies, eliminated investments in new routes, held back service improvements, we’ve really focused on keeping service on the street,” Kooistra said. “It was felt that it was the responsible thing to do. But we continue one-time fixes and Band-Aids for a budget that needs sustainable funding.”
The Walz administration has proposed a one-eighth-cent sales tax in the seven-county metro area, as well as a 0.375 percent increase in the motor vehicle sales tax to maintain the bus, light rail and commuter rail system — moves expected to raise close to $1 billion over the next decade.
Whether these tax increases will gain traction at the Capitol — particularly among the tax-averse, light-rail leery Republicans who control the Senate — is unclear.
In January, Metro Transit added plainclothes officers on Blue and Green line light-rail trains to handle nuisance issues, such as smoking, loud music and disruptive behavior.
Since then, the number of citations on the Green Line, which connects the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, have tripled, and arrests have more than doubled. On the Blue Line, which links downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America, citations are up 150 percent and arrests rose 180 percent.
Part of the plan bolsters uniformed Metro Transit police officers on both lines, including using personnel who normally work desk jobs.
They will conduct fare checks and establish more of a presence at trouble spots, including the addition of two officers at the Brooklyn Center Transit Center, and two patrolling the Chicago-Lake Street Transit Center and the Lake Street/Midtown Blue Line light-rail stop.
Data show that’s where the greatest number of issues and concerns are, Kooistra said.
Metro Transit does not yet have details on how it would reward passengers for good behavior.
Safety and nuisance issues are the main reason so-called “choice” riders — those who have a car — abandon transit.
Those passengers are critical for Metro Transit to maintain its ridership, which was about 81 million in 2018, down slightly from the previous year.
While light-rail ridership increased 9 percent, local bus service declined by 4 percent last year.
“Mass transit needs the mass to be successful,” said Yingling Fan, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “It’s a vicious cycle, if it’s underutilized then it’s underfunded.”
“That’s why the choice rider is so important,” she said.
In 2016, about 60 percent of Metro Transit’s riders had a vehicle.
Metro Transit plans to add three people to its transit control center in Minneapolis, which provides customers with real-time schedule information and support for the smartphone app. It also responds to passengers who text or call with safety issues and handles social media communications that provide alerts for service issues.
Kooistra conceded that this winter “was one of the worst in recent memory” because of snow, ice and record cold. Light-rail breaks, where contracting steel rails split, were four times higher than normal, causing service delays for repairs.
In addition, many of the system’s 12,000 bus stops were snowed in, and buses themselves got stuck on snowy roads.
“All of this impacts service reliability and the customer experience,” he said. “It’s been a really tough winter.”