Metro Transit riders will see more police and members of community service groups on buses, trains and light-rail platforms this summer as the agency attempts to beat back crime and get people who are homeless or experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues the help they need.
Thursday marked the start of the Transit Service Intervention Project, a $2 million effort to improve safety and passengers' experiences on buses and trains, said Metropolitan Council Chairman Charlie Zelle. Legislators included funding for it in this session's transportation bill.
"This day will mark more than a turning point but a benchmark toward gradual progress and, some ways, dramatic progress to creating a safe and comfortable environment," Zelle said during a news conference at Target Field Station.
It's a tall task. Crime on Metro Transit was up 66% during the first quarter of 2023 compared with the same time in 2022. The agency responded to nearly 2,400 serious crimes such as drug use and property damage from January through the end of March. Overall police calls rose 9% compared with the first quarter of 2022, the agency said.
Through the intervention project, billed as a "reset," Metro Transit will partner with community groups such as A Mother's Love and Circle of Discipline to deescalate potentially volatile situations. Group members will ride trains and buses to build relationships with those using transit as a shelter and connect them with services such as housing and mental health programs.
Metro Transit's Homeless Action Team plans to host outreach events at busy light-rail stations over the next few weeks to reach those in need, said Sgt. Beverly Rodriguez, who heads the team.
The agency is also deploying unarmed security personnel to troubled spots, including the Franklin Avenue light-rail station and Lake Street/Midtown platform where a transgender woman was brutally attacked in February. The agency also hopes to add 26 ambassadors to its ranks in the near future, said Metro Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales III.
Morales said the agency will step up efforts to enforce the transit code of conduct and crack down on fare evasion, though he stopped short of saying whether fare evaders would be kicked off trains.
"Yes, you are expected to pay the fare," Morales said, adding that officers will be educating riders on how to pay.
Metro Transit is still short on police officers. The agency is authorized for 171 full-time and 80 part-time officers but has 107 full-time and 41 part-time officers on staff. With the shortage, Morales said he needs the extra eyes and ears that partner organizations will provide to keep a watch on the transit system.
"Metro Transit is doing its part, but us alone is not going to correct the situation," Morales said. "Just helping people on our system is not enough. The cities and counties have to be involved. It takes a village."
Riders can also play a part in improving the transit system, Morales said. Through Thursday, ridership for 2023 was up 20% compared with last year at this time. But the daily weekday average of 127,154 was far below pre-pandemic numbers. More riders could improve safety, he said.
But will the intervention win them back?
"It's too early to tell," he said. "We have to instill confidence in our paying commuters because we are safer in numbers. You can hold my feet to the fire. Change will come, but it will take time."