Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
In the Twin Cities, Metro Transit is a sprawling system, delivering 38.8 million rides in 2022 across 900 square miles. Regular bus service remains the workhorse of the system, responsible for nearly 23 million of those rides. The Blue and Green light-rail lines followed, with more than 12 million rides, while bus rapid transit accounted for over 3 million rides.
A special report from the Star Tribune Editorial Board about making riders feel safe on light rail.
But the 38.8 million rides is down from a high of more than 85 million in 2015. By 2019, the system had already fallen to just under 78 million. And while ridership continues to inch back, crime remains a serious problem, particularly on the subject of this special report: light rail.
Metro Transit officials know the key to reducing crime lies in better, more visible, more strategically deployed law enforcement and other security measures, and they say they are working toward that goal. But while police agencies across the country are experiencing shortages, few environments present a bigger challenge than Minneapolis and St. Paul in the post-George Floyd era.
Metro Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales, who arrived in February, is a veteran of the New York City Police Department, including as a commanding officer in its transit branch. He knows what the system needs: many more fare-paying riders and a far greater security presence. More riders, he said, "because there is safety in numbers," and more security presence because "where we've been able to do that, we have seen results."
His forces, however, are spread painfully thin.
Authorized for 171 full-time sworn officers, Morales said in late August that he was struggling to hold on to the 107 he had. "They leave faster than we can hire them," he said. By mid-November the department managed to swear in an additional four officers. Morales also is authorized for 80 part-time officers. He has just 34. Of the 70 community service officers (typically college students studying for a police career) he should have, Morales has 14.
Despite offering thousands of dollars in signing bonuses for new officers and up to $18,000 in tuition reimbursement for prospective candidates, it's been hard to find takers. Young people, Morales said, "see the way police are treated here, and they don't want to be villainized." His efforts to recruit at high schools have met with little success. Asked if school officials were refusing to let him in, Morales demurred: "Let's just say they're not extending the invitation."
Nevertheless, Morales is doing what he can, starting with pulling officers out of Metro Transit Police squad cars and putting them on light rail. That action alone, he said, has produced results that show up as slightly higher crime statistics but also a greater sense of safety. Since the summer, private security guards have provided an additional presence at the most troubled stations.
A close look at the numbers shows just how daunting his task is. While Metro buses are not trouble-free, statistics provided by Metro Transit make clear that the more serious problems are on light rail, where enclosed rail cars and a lack of security personnel can make passengers easy prey or unwilling parties to whatever disturbance is going on.
Light rail provided less than a third of total rides but more than half the total number of crimes systemwide, according to Metro Transit data for 2021 and 2022.
As ridership has slowly come back, crime has risen. The Lake Street LRT station spiraled from 312 incidents in 2021 to 696 last year and 868 in the first eight months 2023. And crime has spread to stations that had few problems before.
Crime at the downtown Minneapolis Nicollet Mall station increased from 53 reported incidents in 2021 to 101 in 2022, with 107 through August of this year. The U.S. Bank Stadium station, where the Blue and Green lines converge, had 112 incidents in 2021, 265 last year and 249 in the first eight months of 2023. Some stations have shown improvement, such as Franklin Avenue, one of the most troubled in the system. That station, with the help of extra policing, went from 332 incidents last year to 189 between January and August of this year.
Overall, Metro Transit reported 5,969 crimes in 2022, for a rate of 15.39 per 100,000 transit boardings, a common measurement for mid-sized transit systems. More than half of those incidents occurred on the Blue and Green lines, for an LRT rate of 25.26 per 100,000 rides. That figure for LRT jumped again through August this year, with 34.02 incidents per 100,000 rides.
Morales notes that increasing enforcement can result in higher incident statistics, and he is correct. That's why it's instructive to look at rates elsewhere. St. Louis logged just 485 incidents total on its MetroLink light-rail system in the first half of 2023. That put its rate at 14 per 100,000 boardings. (St. Louis' incident statistics include "standard of conduct" offenses, property crime and violent crime.) Officials there say their proactive security overhaul is paying off.
Reported crime is just one of the problems facing Twin Cities LRT. Behavior that feels out-of-control or threatening — along with train cars littered with trash, booze bottles and sometimes needles — has scared some riders away.
But Morales can point to some successes, too. High-profile, well-staffed events over the summer had trains bursting with fare-paying riders who traveled mostly without incident to concerts and Twins games. "We've shown we can do this and that people can ride in safety," Morales said.
Bringing back 'choice' riders
Even before the pandemic, the Blue and Green lines struggled with growing numbers of homeless people riding the rails for shelter night and day, often bedding down across three or four seats apiece. Crime was becoming more brazen, but when the pandemic hit, social norms broke down even further. Smoking, open drug use and dealing became increasingly common.
Yingling Fan, a transportation and urban planning expert and professor at the University of Minnesota, said the Twin Cities LRT system has been considered one of the more dangerous in the country because of persistent crime and lower ridership. Other systems experienced post-COVID crime spikes and ridership declines, and their bounce-back has been more robust, she said. Near-empty cars and a lack of security presence, she said, embolden criminals and other transgressors.
A founding director of the U's Global Transit Innovations Program, Fan noted that in any transit system, lower traffic post-pandemic, parking, gas prices and reliability of service are all factors. But crime, she said, can trump them all, and she called the need for resources to lower crime "imperative."
Metro Transit depends heavily on "choice" riders, she said, meaning those who have other means of transportation but can be persuaded to take light-rail trains or buses. However, she said, "If it's not safe, clean and efficient, they won't choose it."
Despite its regional name, a healthy Metro Transit system should matter to all Minnesotans because the Twin Cities metro area remains the economic engine for the state. Nothing can replace the sheer volume of rides light rail can carry during major events that draw visitors from around Minnesota. And businesses both in the downtowns and across the region have a stake, too, in that reliable transit widens the pool of workers they can attract. Fan noted that light rail in particular is an essential part of a modern-day mass transit system, spurring economic development and providing advantages that street buses cannot match.
Kurt Zellers, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a former Republican legislator who championed bus rapid transit, said he wants to see a focus more squarely on safety and fare enforcement. While eliminating all crime is not possible, he said, "the experience needs to be 99 times out of a hundred 'I rode and nothing happened.' That's what's missing in our transit… . We need something to restore confidence in this system, that shows not just in words but in actions that we're taking safety as the most important part of passenger ride."
Riding the rails
Late in the summer, an editorial writer traveling for hours on the Blue and Green lines on different days did not encounter a single police officer or security guard and saw no fare checks. Although the Government Plaza station was mostly clean, others such as Nicollet Mall and U.S. Bank Stadium were dirtier, with the pervasive scent of urine, cigarettes and weed that seems ever present in some parts of the system. Rail cars appeared cleaner than last winter, when tar-covered foil and drug paraphernalia were everyday sights for months on end, along with the presence of used crack pipes.
Nick Holzthum, who uses a wheelchair, is a light-rail regular. He says it's less safe and clean than systems he's used in Boston and Seattle, and he has felt targeted and threatened because of his disability on multiple occasions.
Auree White uses light rail to get to her job at Chick-fil-A but doesn't like it. She said she has seen riders smoking crack, leaving trash and playing loud music. "Like, who raised you?" she said. "None of the rules are enforced."
Abby Bergstrom, Kamilla Ramos and his brother Michael Ramos are daily riders. They've been in fights, have watched riders do hard drugs and have had things stolen from them. "I've had packs of cigarettes taken out of my hand on light rail," Michael Ramos said. "It's honestly even worse at night," Bergstrom said. Michael Ramos admits that "I haven't paid for the train in forever." Bergstrom chimed in, "No one pays for the train."
Jimmie and Jay Walker are brothers. Jimmie rides the train daily (his driver's license was suspended). Jay just got out of jail and needs public transit. Close to six feet tall with face tattoos, Jay is a formidable figure yet doesn't safe on the train, nor does his brother. "There's people getting shot, stabbed, beat up," Jimmie said. Jay acknowledged that he smokes both cigarettes and marijuana, but was incredulous to learn that "people be smoking dope on the train." Jimmie concurred: "The smoking thing is terrible."
An elevated platform, the Blue Line's Lake Street/Midtown station has been a notorious trouble spot. On a steamy summer day in August, Morales and Metro Transit General Manager Lesley Kandaras pointed to the renovations and extra staffing officials say are beginning to turn it around. A bright, designer mural splashes color along the walls, which Kandaras said also helps prevent graffiti and vandalism. The elevator was newly repaired.
But the two escalators were out of order that day, while one bore a red graffiti scrawl on the metal, opposite the unmarred mural. A glass panel downstairs was cracked. Morales proudly noted that officers working overtime have helped clear the area and maintain order. But pointing to piles of detritus, he grimaced. "This station gets daily cleanings, sometimes twice a day," he said, "but it's hard to tell sometimes."
Street-level doors to the station are padlocked with heavy chains once the trains stop running between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. When asked if the elevated platform would lend itself to the type of tall, roto-gate turnstiles and fencing that soon will be used at St. Louis stations, Kandaras acknowledged that "we're studying what it would take to enclose some stations." She also said Metro Transit is getting "good results" from the small number of private security guards that patrol certain stations and platforms.
Morales said fare enforcement can be a critical element in controlling crime because, in his experience, "not every fare beater is a criminal, but every criminal is a fare beater."
View from the Capitol
Gov. Tim Walz in March proposed $8 million to enclose several of the most troubled LRT stations, but no lawmaker carried his proposal. That was disappointing, Walz said in an interview, but he will renew his push in the upcoming legislative session. "This is part of a broader strategy for me." Enclosing stations "is just good sense," he said. "People are counting on this."
He may have won over his most important skeptic — the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit. Staff for years had dismissed enclosed platforms as too costly and unnecessary.
But Charlie Zelle, head of the Metropolitan Council, said in a recent interview that his own thinking has evolved. He now said he would be "shocked" if the Lake Street/Midtown platform is not fully enclosed as part of its upcoming rebuild.
And earlier this month, the Met Council announced plans to study the enclosure of four LRT stations: Franklin Avenue and 46th Street on the Blue Line, Snelling Avenue on the Green Line, and the shared Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue Station in downtown Minneapolis. "Now we realize the whole notion of fare compliance, behavior and a welcoming environment are all interconnected," Zelle said.
He said he has become convinced that "there will be an element of enclosure," though perhaps not every station. "We're going to learn as we go," he said. "We're going to keep on the paths that show success." He said he sees St. Louis as potentially "a great partner" and expects to talk with officials there soon. "The industry's notions of safety are changing," he said, "and we are all learning from each other."
DFL House leaders remain skeptical about enclosing stations and say they prefer to see what comes out of the 2023 legislative bill that made significant changes to transit, including a 75-cent sales tax expected to net $400 million for transit needs; higher cleaning standards for stations and trains; more officers, and a long-sought change in enforcement that switches from police-issued citations to administrative fines issued by civilian agents.
Sen. John Jasinski of Faribault, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, said the new resources should go a long way toward improved security. While he is among those who prefer bus rapid transit, "this state has spent billions on light rail," he said. "We have to figure out a way to make it safe and keep it safe. Until we increase safety and ridership, we should not be expanding light rail."
Riders prize safety
It's clear what riders want. A recent survey with more than 2,000 responses showed a strong majority wanted a focus on safety and fare enforcement. That makes sense. Passengers need and deserve to know that most riders will follow basic rules, and that there will be consequences for those who fail to do so.
Metro Transit has done some things right, but a more focused effort is needed. The agency has installed thousands of closed-circuit cameras that live-stream from rail cars and designated stations and are monitored at Metro Transit's main office, which includes a sophisticated communications center. Morales said officials are working on an artificial intelligence system to track movements, such as pulling a weapon.
An internal team works to connect homeless people with services, although the results have been modest: 282 adults and 203 children connected to permanent housing since the program's inception in 2018. The civilian agent program, called the Transit Ridership Improvement Plan, will have a quiet start, with just 22 agents planned for early next year to check fares.
Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, who took the lead on the new standards in the legislative bill, said that when he started his first term in 2019, "I rode light rail every day. I love light rail." But, he said, "I also saw the problems first-hand."
Ultimately, he said, rail "is a huge asset, and a big investment for the state of Minnesota. We are obligated to make sure it works well for everybody. We want fare-paying folks on the trains. Conduct has to be enforced." Bus rapid transit, he noted, also has customers who pay at kiosks before they board, "but we're not seeing the same issue with fare evasion and crime." Unlike light rail, however, BRT drivers provide a uniformed presence at the head of each vehicle, visible to all. Zelle, for his part, said he continues to believe that light rail is the core of the transit system — stable, high-capacity and environmentally sound.
With a greater commitment by the Met Council, Metro Transit and the Legislature, Twin Cities LRT can be made safe, clean and efficient. But today it is an act of courage to wait on a dark night in midwinter at a wide-open Lake Street station with no visible security, then step into a nearly empty rail car with no security presence save a closed-circuit camera.
It shouldn't feel that way, and that's what must change.
What ideas do you have for making light-rail transit safer and rebuilding public trust in the Twin Cities system? In addition to participating in the online commenting feature at the end of each of these articles, you can submit letters (up to 250 words) or commentaries (up to 700, for more complex arguments) here.