Plagued with rising crime and passenger complaints about drug use and erratic behavior on Metro Transit light-rail trains, lawmakers at the State Capitol have proposed an intervention.
The Transit Service Intervention Project, according to a bill introduced at the Legislature, would call for social workers and others to provide "coordinated, high-visibility interventions" over three months to Green and Blue Line passengers experiencing homelessness or mental health and substance abuse issues.
"We have been struggling in the metro with transit safety for some time now," Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, said Thursday at a hearing of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.
Tabke, who co-authored the House bill, said "intensive intervention will reset the culture of the transit ride."
The legislation is the latest effort to increase safety within the Twin Cities' public transportation system. It follows the brutal attack Monday of a transgender woman at the Blue Line's Lake Street/Midtown Station, an assault that underscored the challenges facing the system as it tries to attract riders lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tabke's bill is in tandem with another measure that would bolster transit safety, partly by making fare evasion an administrative citation akin to a parking ticket — freeing up transit police officers to deal with more serious crimes.
The suburban lawmaker said he has acquired "first-hand knowledge" of the issues aboard light rail after his truck was totaled in a crash on the first day of the legislative session, forcing him to take the train to the Capitol. What he's experienced in the weeks since then, he said, points to "a massive, massive problem."
Crime reports on Metro Transit trains and buses increased by 54% in 2022 as drug complaints surged 182%, weapons complaints soared 145% and liquor violations jumped 92%.
More than a half-dozen speakers offered support Thursday for the bill.
Among them was Aidan Kilgannon, who said he rides two buses and light rail to reach his job at St. Paul's Neighborhood Cafe. Kilgannon, who has Down syndrome, said he was once assaulted by a woman on the train who was wearing nothing but a towel.
"I need to be safe," he said.
Charlie Zelle, chair of the Metropolitan Council which operates Metro Transit, said "major steps" have been taken over the past three years to improve safety aboard buses and trains, including a 40-point plan that was adopted last summer.
But Zelle said that effort has been hampered by a shortage of Metro Transit police officers. The department is down by 64 full-time officers, he said, and there's also a shortage of community service officers — unarmed police officers in training who provide an official presence on transit.
Zelle was joined at the hearing by Mitch Kilian, associate vice president of government affairs for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which oversees Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In recent months, many airport employees and passengers have complained about crime, drug use, defecation and filth aboard the Blue Line, which connects the airport's two terminals.
Kilian said the light-rail conditions harm the region's tourism and convention businesses. Visitors who take the Blue Line to shop at the Mall of America and travelers who arrive at the airport "ride the light rail one way, but they're not coming back," he said.
Recently, Metro Transit and airport police beefed up patrols at MSP's Blue Line's stations.
The bill appears to have bipartisan support. Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, said the Met Council "dropped the ball and allowed this to happen" and has a serious accountability issues as a result.
Ryan Timlin, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005, which represents bus and light-rail operators and employees who clean trains and stations, said crime and other issues have "put immense strain on the workforce." Several workers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
The intervention team described in the bill would be led by a project manager appointed by the governor with experience in social services, public transit or law enforcement. The team would include representatives from the state Human Services and Public Safety departments, the Met Council, Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota and community-based social service organizations.
Hennepin and Ramsey county commissioners said they support the effort but cautioned that social services employees are already stretched thin.
"We simply don't have social workers sitting idle," said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Lunde.
Abdinasir Nourkadi, communications and outreach coordinator for Move Minnesota, said the bill is a good start to improving the experience on public transportation.
"We need to get more people on the trains and build a community that feels safe," he said.