Minnesota legislators are scrambling to broker a deal to enhance safety on public transit after recent high-profile attacks and growing complaints about crime on buses and light-rail trains.
The safety provisions being considered at the Capitol would create a new line of defense — transit agents who would check passenger fares and assist police in maintaining order on public transportation. It’s a strategy that has been used in other cities nationwide, including San Francisco and Seattle.
The proposals come after a KSTP-TV anchor was injured in what was described as a random attack Tuesday at the Nicollet Mall light-rail station. And earlier this month, a woman was kicked in the head at a Green Line station in St. Paul, an assault that led to criminal charges against three teens.
Legislators have also proposed changing the way fare evaders are fined and prosecuted. Now, failure to pay a fare could result in a $180 fine, similar to drunken driving, assault and theft. But of the 1,500 citations issued by Metro Transit police for fare evasion last year, only 45 people actually paid the fine — mostly because local prosecutors often decline to pursue cases over an unpaid $2 ticket, preferring instead to focus on more serious crimes.
New proposals scheduled for consideration at the Capitol Thursday would make fare evasion an administrative citation, similar to a traffic ticket, with fines beginning at $35 and capped at $100.
But the debate got bogged down with various amendments to a House transportation policy bill, which was ultimately tabled for now.
With the legislative session closing on Monday, lawmakers still hope they can come to an agreement on transit safety.
“We are prioritizing areas where we can reach agreement with the Senate and get critical work done for Minnesotans — including transportation investments and transit safety,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, in a news release.
Early in the session, lawmakers appeared keen to tackle the issue of budding crime on transit — especially after a man was shot and killed on a C Line bus in downtown Minneapolis and a fatal stabbing on the Blue Line earlier this year.
Overall, violent crime on buses and trains, including rape, robbery and aggravated assault, increased 35% in 2019 over the previous year, according to Metro Transit.
But once COVID-19 struck, there was a lull in the effort to boost safety as lawmakers focused on the pandemic and its economic fallout. However, in recent weeks, a bipartisan effort among House lawmakers has resulted in a compromise tackling the issue, said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville. “We can’t sit back and do nothing,” he said.
After the bill was tabled Thursday, Koznick fired off a news release, apparently frustrated that debate focused on a different measure related to amusement park rides.
“Significant security improvements are needed at Metro Transit as crime skyrockets across our public transportation system,” he said. “It’s time to put policy over politics and prove to Minnesotans that we are serious about ensuring their families are safe when they use public transit.”
Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, said he remains “hopeful we can reach a bipartisan agreement to pass legislation before the end of session to benefit both suburban and metro riders.”
Last year, Metro Transit provided nearly 78 million rides to passengers, with ridership increasing to about 14 million on the Green Line light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and 11 million on the Blue Line, which connects downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America and the airport.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Metro Transit has seen an overall ridership decline of about 75%.
In an interview this week, Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra said he’s “encouraged” that the discussion about safety on public transportation has been revived at the Capitol, especially talk of transit monitors.
“We need to provide more of a presence on our service that will deter crime and [increase] fare enforcement,” he said.