Metropolitan Council Chairman Charles Zelle is correct when he notes that public safety is the No. 1 issue that bus and light-rail riders, law enforcement and officials must confront.
Yes, there are driver shortages, which Zelle told an editorial writer this week began long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated them. Yes, there are still many challenges before the Twin Cities can fully realize the Metro Transit vision that plays out so clearly in Zelle's head. Zelle, former chairman of Jefferson Lines and former transportation commissioner under Gov. Tim Walz, says that "public transit is in my bones."
But overriding all of those, he said, is public safety, which alone can make or break ridership. "The perception of crime on public transit is worse than the reality," he said, "but the reality is bad. We're not turning a blind eye to it." Crime had been rising on public transit even before the pandemic, but then was made worse by plummeting ridership levels. Violent crime, including rape, robbery and aggravated assault on public transit — both buses and light rail — had risen 35% in 2019 over the previous year.
To create not just the perception of safety but actual, safer transit, Zelle said, the light-rail system has updated its security system to feature live video streams from all 91 rail cars and every platform. Zelle noted that the system also allows those monitoring to communicate verbally. When some teens were acting out during a recent demonstration of the video, he said, supervisors issued a warning directly to the baffled teens. "It was like the voice of God coming at them," Zelle said with a chuckle.
Beyond that, Zelle said Metro Transit, which is a service of the council, plans to deploy more community service officers (CSOs), who wear high-visibility vests for identification but are not armed. They are there, Zelle said, as a visual deterrent but can also guide, alert, monitor behavior and check fares, freeing police officers to handle more serious issues. The goal, he said, is go beyond safety and create "a hospitable and welcoming experience."
Growing the CSO ranks from 13 to 83, as Zelle plans to do by this summer, is a smart use of resources. Livestreaming video is a critical update that needed to happen, but nothing quite replaces the human element, knowing that a person in authority has eyes on passengers and platforms. Seeing a daily presence and having someone to turn to short of a fully armed police officer could go a long way toward resolving minor situations and rebuilding passenger confidence.
One crucial element that will maximize the successful deployment of CSOs is the ability to write tickets for fare evasion. Right now, Zelle said, they can only issue warnings. Police still must write up actual violations. The change would require permission from the Legislature.
Let us be clear about the objective here: It is for more fare compliance, not less. Right now the fines are, in Zelle's words, "a bit draconian." At $180 per violation, they become a steep assessment that is only rarely prosecuted. Zelle maintains that fare evasion should be treated more like a parking citation, which starts somewhere around $35.
The problem of nonpaying riders is most acute on light rail and bus rapid transit, where fares are paid at the platform rather than to a driver. Giving CSOs the ability to write such citations could result in more and better enforcement. It is a tactic that has been used in other cities to enhance compliance and de-escalate such encounters.
Sadly, a deal at the Legislature last year that would have addressed the issue fell apart over the Senate GOP's resistance to lowering penalties. That resistance may finally be softening. Senate Transportation Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said at the time that he had been "rather intransigent in my belief that we had to maintain criminal penalties," but had since changed his mind.
This is a matter of proportionality. If the fine is so high that it is seldom invoked, it is little more than window dressing, the illusion of being tough on crime. In reality, lowering the fine and allowing for greater enforcement through a citation process that could be used by CSOs is a more practical alternative. It would have the further advantage of freeing up both police and prosecutors for far more consequential crimes.