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Minnesota's Top Transit Agency Tries New Approaches to Public Safety

Metro Transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul is using new methods of fare enforcement, as well as partnering with social service nonprofits, in an effort to combat open drug use and generally make trains feel safer.

3 Metro Transit riders in a metro car
Metro Transit is working with nonprofits to address fare evasion and provide services to riders. (Metro Transit/Flickr)
In Brief:
  • Metro Transit launched a $2 million Transit Service Intervention Project last summer to address widespread drug use and other issues on its vehicles.

  • The effort was funded by the state Legislature as part of a broader investment in transit service.

  • Community service officers, rather than police, began enforcing fare payments this month.

  • Thirteen inches of snow fell on St. Paul on Jan. 3, the first day of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2023 session. Driving home from the capitol to Shakopee, 30 miles west, state Rep. Brad Tabke had a collision. He had to send his truck in for repairs. Suddenly, he depended on buses and trains to get to work. “Being transit-dependent in the suburbs is terrible,” Tabke says.

    It wasn’t just the longer commute, the infrequent trains or the fact that he had to shell out for a Lyft if he stayed late at work. The experience of being on the train had devolved since the depths of the pandemic, he says. Smoking and drug use were rampant. Many riders didn’t feel safe.

    The day Tabke had his accident was his first day back on the job after an extended absence. First elected to the state House in 2018, he lost his seat two years later, but then won it back in 2022. Given a second chance, he was determined to do something about transit safety.

    During his initial term, he had worked with a group of transit advocates on a push to increase the presence of unarmed transit personnel in the Metro system, while decriminalizing fare evasion. That effort was blocked in the state Senate, then under Republican control. But in 2022, not only did Tabke win his seat back, but the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party took control of the entire Legislature, while holding onto the governor’s office. All that has spurred a surge of progressive bills this year on everything from abortion rights to recreational marijuana and paid sick leave.

    Included in the 2023 transportation budget, alongside new funding for transit operations and investments in decarbonization, was funding for a Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP) — the very thing advocates had been pushing for years. Metro Transit is now working to implement new fare enforcement policies, build back ridership lost during the pandemic and provide support for riders who are unhoused, drug users or experiencing mental health crises.

    “It’s been a journey, and we’re thrilled to have it,” says Sam Rockwell, executive director of Move Minnesota, which worked with Tabke on the TRIP proposal in 2020 and again in 2023.

    Safer Trains and Buses 

    Open drug use is the biggest factor in making transit vehicles feel unsafe, according to Tabke and transit advocates. It was a problem before the pandemic began but a much smaller — or less visible — one. Pandemic-era ridership losses reduced social pressure on buses and trains, and led to increased smoking and drug use not just in the Twin Cities but all over the U.S.

    Rockwell says he endured monthslong stretches where he was close to someone smoking fentanyl every time he rode the train. “The thing that we can’t have is people using the transit system in a way that functionally pushes other people off the system,” he says. “Smoking cigarettes, fentanyl — these are big problems and it just can’t happen.”

    Deploying more police isn’t the answer, he says. Move Minnesota wanted to decriminalize fare evasion even before the pandemic, in part to reduce people’s chances of becoming involved in the criminal justice system for petty offenses. A number of cities have taken that step on their transit systems in recent years.

    Fare evasion is part of the breakdown in public order on transit, and riders need to be expected to pay their fares, Rockwell says. But cops shouldn’t be the enforcers, especially in a city that has experienced “some extraordinary ruptures of public trust between citizens and the police.”

    The presence of transit employees on vehicles, however, including people checking fare payments, decreases drug use and makes people feel safer. “It’s important to have an official presence on the buses and trains, and it’s important that that presence create a welcoming environment for everybody,” Rockwell says.

    A metro transit rail car
    Although ridership has recovered, it still lags pre-pandemic levels. (Metro Transit/Flickr)

    Partner Agencies and Community Service Officers

    Metro’s effort to improve conditions for riders has two parts. A Transit Service Intervention Project began earlier this year, with 10 nonprofit partners providing social services to riders. Tabke has described the project as part of a “reset in the culture of what it is to be a transit rider.”

    The nonprofit groups “offer everything from on-the-spot health care from registered nurses to housing assistance to mental health and addiction services,” according to a Metro spokesperson. “We’ve [been] seeing a declining trend in the number of monthly customer complaints about behavior on the light rail,” says Celina Martina, the senior manager for transit equity at Metro who oversees the program.

    Between June and November, representatives from those groups interacted with 530 riders and made 177 referrals for social services, Metro General Manager Lesley Kandaras said during a legislative hearing this month. Most of those referrals were for housing or shelter, with recovery services representing the second biggest share, Kandaras said.

    The second phase of the project is a Transit Rider Investment Program. That involves Metro personnel — not police — enforcing payment on transit vehicles by handing out fines and citations to fare-jumpers. The fine for the first violation is $35, but that's forgiven if riders load $20 money onto fare cards (with discounts for low-income riders). Under the new system, Metro says, police might only become involved with nonpaying riders if community service officers decide to call them. The agency is intending to hire new staff to help with fare enforcement and safety in 2024.

    Ridership is still slowly ticking back up from the depths of the pandemic, as it is in many other cities. More than anything else, full trains and buses are what will keep the system feeling safe, says Rockwell. Metro’s new programs, with state support, should help them get there.

    “It becomes a positive feedback loop,” he says. “As the system feels a bit better, more people will ride. The more people riding, the more the social pressure increases. Ultimately, that has got to be what keeps things feeling good. It can’t just be ceaseless enforcement. It’s got to be people stepping up to the social expectations.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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