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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Regular Twin Cities light-rail riders have likely witnessed this common offense: fare dodgers strolling onto trains without paying as if on a hop-on, hop-off tour bus.

That's because it's easy to ride for free with the system's open platforms, honor-system payment and understaffed security force. The likelihood of getting caught is low. And even if one does get cited, it's not likely that anything will be done about it.

Incredibly, of the nearly 39 million rides taken in 2022, only 49 citations were given for failure to pay. According to Metro Transit figures reported by the Star Tribune, that was up from 10 — yes, 10 — the previous year.

Only Metro Transit police officers can issue citations, and only after first giving a warning. In 2022, 542 warnings were issued, compared with 689 in 2021. Citations totaled 1,308 in 2019, but ridership was also higher before COVID contributed to a dramatic drop in passengers.

Now some state lawmakers rightly want to see greater enforcement. State Reps. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, and Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, are proposing legislation that would change the offense from a misdemeanor to an administrative citation and give non-sworn officers the authority to issue it.

The changes merit support because they would make it easier to punish fare dodgers by issuing them a citation similar to a parking ticket rather than threatening a misdemeanor with a $180 fine. Right now, this financial penalty is rarely imposed and collected because it requires going to court. And as a lower-level offense, city and county attorneys often do not take it on.

According to a 2020 Metro Council audit, only about 2.6% of the few citations issued resulted in any payment. And even then, those payments went to the court — not Metro Transit.

Both legislative proposals are strongly supported by Metropolitan Council leaders who have been pushing for the changes for years. Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle told an editorial writer that these reforms would make it easier to issue citations and collect payments if approved.

Zelle also said that the workforce shortage has contributed to the inability to issue more citations. Metro Transit is budgeted for 171 full-time sworn law enforcement staff but currently has 110. Metro Transit could employ as many as 70 community service workers — who could issue tickets if the law changes — but now only has 15.

Metro Transit will face budget and hiring problems in coming years because federal COVID-era funding is running out, Zelle said. He's hoping for more state funding.

Whatever becomes of this year's requests at the Capitol, Metro Transit needs to fully explore all possible alternatives to increase safety and ridership in the years ahead. Fare evasion certainly isn't the only problem on light rail. Criminal activity of all types has increased, making it more challenging to attract fare-paying users.

Another idea the system should seriously consider is creating more secure platforms and stations. St. Louis is retrofitting 39 MetroLink light-rail stations with gates and turnstiles to improve safety and security. A few new platforms opened this year, and the $52 million project is expected to be completed in the next two years. A transit official there said the closed system helps "move problematic behavior away."

Zelle said a study done several years ago on retrofitting Twin Cities stations found that changing the 37 stations could cost as much as $150 million. "We're not closed to the idea and studying it again at some point in the future," he said. "But in terms of our action plan, there are other things that we're doing with more urgency."

Urgency is necessary. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long supported public transit, including the expansion of light-rail lines. But no one — including the most ardent transit advocates — should pretend that the current conditions are acceptable.

We'd bet that some of the fare dodgers are also among those riders breaking rules or violating laws on or near the trains. Fewer fare evaders, cleaner and more orderly conditions, and more secure and better-staffed stations and trains are needed to increase ridership and rebuild confidence in the system.