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People caught riding Twin Cities light-rail trains without paying would no longer face criminal penalties under a plan Democratic legislators and the Metropolitan Council will push at the Capitol this year.

The proposal also would add uniformed "transit ambassadors" to monitor the trains, which saw an increase in serious crime in 2019. They would ensure that those who can pay are doing so and connect people with services if they cannot afford the fare, said bill sponsor Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee.

Someone caught riding without a ticket now faces a $180 misdemeanor penalty, though Tabke said a tiny fraction of such cases are prosecuted. The bill would reduce that to a $25 petty misdemeanor fine that could be paid online.

"It's not just. It's not fair. And [prosecutors] have more important priorities," Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle said of the significant fine now in place for failing to pay a $2 fare.

The plan comes as robberies, assaults and thefts have increased on Twin Cities light-rail lines, including a fatal stabbing on the Blue Line in January.

Transit ambassadors would address a trend of fewer people paying fares, but more importantly they would create a safer and more welcoming atmosphere and deter people from criminal behavior in their presence, Zelle said. They would also free up police to focus on more serious problems, Tabke said.

Ambassadors are just one piece of the puzzle to improving riders' experience on light-rail lines, said Zelle, who recently took over as chairman.

Metro Transit has already beefed up the police presence inside trains and buses and added a homeless action team, Zelle said. The agency is adding live surveillance cameras inside light-rail cars and is looking to change seats from fabric to plastic and increase cleaning services, he said.

"One of these things doesn't seem to be that big of a deal, but when we piece all this together, it creates a much different impression about what it is to be riding transit," he said.

Tabke and Zelle said they do not yet have a number of how many transit ambassadors they want to add or a cost estimate for the program. However, as more people pay to ride, that would generate additional dollars, Tabke said. His bill sets a goal of having 10% of transit riders inspected for fare compliance by 2024.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, the Republican lead on the House transportation committee, said he hasn't looked through Tabke's proposal but believes something needs to be done to address light-rail safety.

He said he's not opposed to decriminalizing fare evasion, as long as it's part of a bigger plan to make the system safer.

Torkelson, R-Hanska, plans to introduce a bill instructing the Met Council to bring in outside experts to evaluate light-rail safety and make recommendations. The issue is particularly important as the system expands, with the new Southwest line being developed between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, he said.

"We want people to feel safe and use the light rail. That's the objective. And with this new project coming on board fairly soon … it would be good if we could address some of these problems before that opens up," he said.

In November, Torkelson offered a slew of ideas to address the rise in criminal behavior on transit. He said at the time that lawmakers would be evaluating options, including making loitering on light-rail station platforms a crime and adding barriers or turnstiles to prevent people from getting on a platform without buying a ticket. He also suggested an increase in Metro Transit officers and fare inspectors, along with a rule that officers would have to cite anyone who didn't have a valid ticket.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044