Mass transit can be a boon to cities, easing congestion, spurring economic development and adding to the livability and vitality of an urban area.
But it can’t do any of those things if riders start to feel unsafe or even uncomfortable. Those with options will choose their cars if the alternative is, as former Metro Transit Chief John Harrington put it, “the second-largest homeless shelter facility in the Twin Cities area.” They won’t risk their health and safety if they see other passengers smoking or drinking, or if they believe they could become victims of crime, sexual harassment or other aggressions.
Metro Transit says it values keeping buses and light-rail trains safe, clean and ridable. To its credit, thousands take mass transit daily without serious incident, but it’s clear that more must be done.
Wes Kooistra, Metro Transit’s new general manager, says riders soon will see more police, cleaner trains, expanded bus routes, an updated transit app, better shoveling during snow season and quicker response time to its hotline, 612-900-0411, which riders can text when they witness unruly behavior.
Kooistra has been refreshingly frank about the state of the system he took over in January, telling reporters in a news briefing this week that “we are falling short of meeting customer expectations for service quality. … So now we’re balancing customer demands and customer needs with fiscal management.” He acknowledges that too many bus stops went unshoveled and that the decade-old NexTrip app failed to keep pace with changes in schedules, leaving passengers waiting in subzero temperatures. Worse still, the number of rail breaks quadrupled this winter. Yes, it was a brutal season, he said, but maintenance should be able to cope.
As part of the changes, the agency is already staffing up at known trouble spots, such as transit stations at Chicago-Lake and Lake Street-Midtown, light-rail stations between Target Field and U.S. Bank Stadium and between the State Capitol and University of Minnesota, and certain bus routes. It will cost up to $2 million, by Kooistra’s estimate. To accomplish this, Metro Transit will dip into money it had been saving against one-time state funds scheduled to run out within a few years.
Republicans at the Legislature have been notoriously averse to transit funding — particularly for light rail. But in an increasingly congested urban area, it’s time to recognize that buses, bus rapid transit and, yes, light rail have become a needed service that must have ongoing, dependable funding.
The Twin Cities is not the only metro area coping with such issues. In 2017, Los Angeles adopted a beefed-up security plan that included contracted security and the combined efforts of Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s departments and others to improve police visibility, cut response time and deploy specially trained officers to deal with homeless or mentally ill riders. They’ve installed bright red phones at all metro stations to report issues and made clear that sexual harassment is a reportable crime on transit.
Following the shooting of a young man at a Metrolink station, officials in St. Louis County, Mo., voted to approve a $5 million funding increase to their transit agency to boost security.
Better security works not only to increase safety, but also to reduce misbehavior and increase funding, because it cuts down on fare jumpers — a perennial problem for light rail’s honor system. Harrington, in testimony to the Legislature last year, said that when “we have officers on trains, we find that less than 1 percent of people on trains are violating our fare policy.” Additionally, he said, “the people who want to misbehave decide that the next stop is their stop.” Harrington, who was named the state’s public safety commissioner in January, did a commendable job as transit chief not only in stretching his forces but in working with community groups to de-escalate the type of conflicts that for some had contributed to perceptions of biased enforcement.
But Kooistra can’t do what he needs to do without reliable funding. “Our customers expect more,” he said at the briefing. “We want to start doing that now. I hope that makes the case … . This is an old problem that’s never been fixed. It’s only been Band-Aided.”