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Metro Transit on Monday stepped up efforts to ensure riders on light-rail trains and buses are paying their fares, and began issuing fines to those who don't.

A team of 12 community service officers fanned out along the Blue and Green lines to kick off the fare compliance program.

In four hours, the officers cited 23 passengers who did not show a valid form of payment, which includes Go-To Cards, paper transfers or tickets purchased on the Metro Transit app.

"I'm not surprised," said Sgt. Kadra Mohamed with Metro Transit police, in a nod to the increase of unpaid riders who feel they won't get caught.

Metro Transit has been lax in fare compliance checks in recent years. While more than 1,300 tickets were issued in 2019, that number dropped to 573 in 2020, 10 in 2021 and 49 in 2022. The agency has not had the staff to carry them out.

Bobby Lee of Minneapolis was cited because his transfer had expired. But he agreed that police should crack down on those who ride but don't pay. He said checking fares could help keep people who do "bad things" off trains. "They should keep doing it."

Lee was issued a $35 administrative citation, akin to a parking ticket, and has 90 days to pay. First-time fare dodgers like Lee can get their fines reduced by buying fares to be used later or by watching a video about transit expectations. They also can request a virtual or in-person hearing in hopes of having the citation dismissed.

The crackdown of fare scofflaws is the first part of a multipronged effort to beat back crime, connect those in need with social services and improve customer experience for all riders.

"Today is one step toward this," said Metro Transit General Manager Lesley Kandaras. "We have a ways to go yet."

Transit agency officials in June unveiled the Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP), and adding nonsworn community service officers to conduct fare checks is part of that. Metro Transit operating budget will cover the cost.

"I think it is a good idea," said Larry Laqua of Williston, N.D., as he boarded a Green Line train at the Stadium Village Station near the University of Minnesota on Monday afternoon. When people don't pay, "it's going to cost somebody."

'Sad day for me'

An announcement over speakers at Stadium Village Station blared a warning: "Those attempting to ride without a valid fare may be fined."

Renard Thompson, 61, of Minneapolis had a pass for riders who use transit to access medical appointments but was in a rush to get on a Green Line train Monday and didn't swipe his card. He was issued a ticket.

"It's important they do this, but this is a sad day for me" he said, noting he rides the train six days a week and was not avoiding paying his fare.

The word to riders is pay your fare, said Drew Kerr, Metro Transit spokesman. That includes tapping prepaid cards for each ride.

"We are issuing citations," he said "The time for warning and education has passed."

While initial fines are relatively low, penalties rise with each subsequent violation up to $100. Those cited four or more times can expect a 120-day ban from using public transportation. The citations won't appear on criminal background reports, but unpaid violations may be referred to a collections process.

Most riders issued citations Monday on the Green Line took their tickets without much protest. But one man who had not paid swore at Mohamed, who said, "I won't arrest you if you get off the train."

In the past, only sworn officers could issue tickets carrying a misdemeanor bearing a possible $180 fine.

Transit officials are hoping that by having community service officers — members of the Metro Transit police who are on a path to law enforcement careers — enforce fares will free up sworn police officers to handle illegal behavior, which has been on the rise in recent years.

Drug and alcohol use, theft, smoking and homeless people sleeping on trains have all spiked since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Crime was up 66% in the first quarter of this year when compared with the same time frame in 2022. That led to plans to combat crime, including the fare-checking program.

Some progress has occurred. Crime declined 22% over the summer and into early fall, officials said last month.

Community service officers will be trained in how to respond to mental health issues, de-escalation, first aid, naloxone administration and CPR, the agency said.

Community service officers' duties also include riding transit to help customers find their way, monitoring behavior and contacting police when they observe illegal behavior or an emergency.

Their deployment comes after the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit, approved a $6 million contract with Allied Universal this summer to place unarmed security officers at the 35W/Lake Street station and five other locations. Guards also were placed at the Blue Line's Lake Street/Midtown and Franklin Avenue stations, the Chicago-Lake Transit Center, and the Brooklyn Center Transit Center to help deter crime and report it.

Kerr said Metro Transit realizes some people may not have the means to pay, but also highlighted programs such as the Transit Assistance Program (TAP) that allows low-income earners to ride for $1.

One person on Monday successfully had their citation tossed out. The rider will put $5 on a TAP card and have their fine waived, Kerr said.

"We ultimately want people to pay fares," he said.

Rider Hui Lin, who lives in Dinkytown and takes transit occasionally, is on board with that.

"They should crack down," she said after buying a ticket Monday at Stadium Village and boarding an eastbound Green Line train.