Minnesota lawmakers are focused on battling crime and fare evasion on buses and light-rail trains, but they disagree along party lines over what tactics might work best.
On Monday, Democratic legislators pitched a new system decriminalizing fare evasion on public transit statewide, making the offense a petty misdemeanor, similar to a traffic or parking ticket. They proposed a new program deploying unarmed transit ambassadors to enforce fares, connect riders in need with services and create an added layer of safety for passengers.
"As our transit system grows in Minnesota, and as we continue to grow that system, it has become clear that our current system is not working on handling fares," said Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, who was flanked by transit advocates Monday at the Capitol. Tabke and others insisted there would be bipartisan support for the measure.
But Republicans said Monday the DFL proposal doesn't go far enough to ensure safety on public transportation. "Reducing the penalties for fare evasion alone won't make our light-rail system safer," said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, noting recent crime signifies "a transportation system in crisis."
The push for increased personnel on transit comes as serious crime on light rail sharply increased for much of 2019. Last month, a man was stabbed to death on the Blue Line.
Metro Transit served some 80 million passengers last year, and ridership on light-rail has steadily increased. Plus, the network is expanding with the Southwest light-rail line beginning service in 2023, and other bus-rapid transit projects planned, as well.
The transit ambassador program proposed by Democrats would be similar to one in the San Francisco area. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system there uses unarmed fare inspectors and will roll out a pilot program next week using ambassadors to suss out inappropriate behavior and safety issues.
"This is a proven strategy," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Transportation and Finance committee.
Transit systems in Seattle, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., have decriminalized fare evasion in a manner similar to the DFL proposal.
"This is happening across the country because legislators are realizing penalties for fare evasion are not commensurate for the offense and they contribute to biases in the criminal justice system," said Ben Fried, spokesman for TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy group. "In general, transit riders have lower incomes and are disproportionately people of color."
The bill's backers hope to set a goal of inspecting fare compliance for at least 10% of riders by 2024. Currently, less than 3% of the citations issued to fare evaders result in fees being collected. In most cases, Tabke noted, prosecutors decline to pursue citations for nonpayment of a $2 transit fare.
Metro Transit's current policy calls for fare evaders to be issued a citation for nonpayment. The second offense results in a misdemeanor, akin to driving under the influence, assault and theft, and a $180 fine.
Tabke's bill would result in a $35 administrative fine, with all proceeds going to the Metropolitan Council to help administer the program.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, has proposed a measure that would require the council to hire an independent entity to review safety on public transportation, including ways to reduce fare evasion, an assessment of potential paid-only zones and barriers at stations, and more video surveillance on trains and platforms.
"We want people who are enforcing the rules, the fare policy, and code of conduct, not just people who say, 'Welcome to Minneapolis,' " Koznick said.
Despite initial differences in approach, Koznick was optimistic common ground could be found. "In general, I think we're moving in the right direction," he said.