Metro Transit light-rail operators told state lawmakers Wednesday they often fear for their safety while on the job, adding another point of view to a budding narrative at the State Capitol about transit safety.
LRT operator Jerry Ziegler told members of the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government that he frequently worries at the beginning of each shift: “Am I going home tonight? Or am I going to HCMC on a gurney or in a black body bag?”
Ziegler and colleague Honey Darling testified in favor of a bill proposed by Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, which calls for an independent assessment of public safety on the Twin Cities’ two light-rail lines.
The discussion about transit safety comes as the Metropolitan Council awaits word on a $929 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration to expand the Twin Cities’ light-rail system to the southwestern suburbs. The $2 billion Southwest light-rail line, currently under construction, would link downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
The two train operators characterized the Green and Blue lines in near-dystopian terms. Operators are “constantly assaulted verbally and physically,” Darling said, noting they often witness criminal behavior, including drug deals and assaults, as well as drug and alcohol use and sexual activity.
While operators control trains from a self-contained cabin, they have to periodically walk through the cars and then clear them at the end of their shifts, Darling said. People sleeping or carousing on the trains don’t want to leave and may grow violent, she said, noting that Metro Transit police often are unavailable to help in a timely manner.
Ridership in 2018 increased by 5% on the Green Line and 4% on the Blue Line.
“It’s really important this system work well and that people feel safe,” Torkelson said.
Violent crime, including rape, robbery and aggravated assault, on public transit — including both buses and LRT — increased by 35% in 2019 over the previous year, according to Metro Transit. Property crime, including theft and arson, increased 26%. Overall, serious crime on public transit increased by 29% last year over 2018.
Earlier this week, DFL lawmakers and transit advocates proposed using unarmed transit ambassadors to help with fare enforcement and de-escalation of problem situations, and act as a conduit for those in need of social services. The number of ambassadors and the budget for the program, if adopted, has not been set.
Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle and Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra were unable to attend the hearing due to scheduling conflicts. But the Met Council’s government affairs director, Judd Schetnan, said the testimony was “difficult for us to hear. We take transit safety seriously.”