Council Chair Charlie Zelle Discusses Widespread Safety Issues on Public Transit

Ridership on Metro Transportation light rail, commuter rail, and buses is half of what it was before the epidemic, and even some longtime public transit proponents have criticized route cuts and an apparent increase in nuisance activities like smoking on train carriages, as well as certain higher-profile crimes.

The Northstar Commuter Rail, which used to offer 14 weekday excursions between Minneapolis and Big Lake, currently only offers four.

Farebox income – money collected from passenger fares — accounted for over a quarter of Metro Transit’s operational budget in 2019. Farebox income was estimated to fund just 12% of yearly operations in 2021, but final data are still being reviewed.

The transportation authority has been able to balance its books thanks to financial reserves and federal CARES Act relief funds, but that won’t last forever.

What can Metro Transit do to better its condition, which runs the Green Line light rail from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis?

In a recent interview, Charlie Zelle, head of the Metropolitan Council, stated, “The number one concern for us has to be safety, security, and I would argue the sense of safety.” “It’s a chicken or egg situation.” People aren’t using public transportation because it doesn’t feel friendly, and it won’t feel welcoming until we reach a critical mass of passengers… to generate more eyes and ears, as well as better, more normative conduct.”

Metro Transit receives revenue from a number of sources, including motor vehicle sales taxes and the federal congestion mitigation and air quality program, although county funds are not insignificant.

Ramsey County will pay $6 million from the county’s transportation sales tax to subsidize the Green Line this year.

Another $10 million from the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority’s property tax levy will be used to support general construction of the Purple Line, a 15-mile bus rapid transit route that will run from St. Paul to White Bear Lake.

The county will spend an extra $25.5 million from both coffers on Purple Route engineering, and $24 million from the rail authority levy on the Gold Line, a 10-mile bus rapid transit line that will run from St. Paul to Woodbury.

Similar service increases are being subsidized by Hennepin County.

The Minneapolis Parks Board broke connections with Minneapolis police after the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man slain by a Minneapolis police officer.

Metro Transit took an unexpected turn. Instead, Zelle, the chairman of the Jefferson Lines intercity bus operator and a former state transportation commissioner, elected to work with the Citizens League for a year to figure out how to improve public safety on light rail and buses without losing passenger experience or community confidence.

“With George Floyd, transit was kind of in the thick of some of the repercussions,” Zelle added. “We took certain apparent moves, but instead of terminating our connections with some police units, we took a step back and stated we needed to think about our procedures and regulations more carefully.” … ‘What do we mean when we talk about the customer experience and safety?’ was something we needed to hear. It’s a really complex mix. It isn’t just about greater enforcement, and it isn’t just about more service.”

He cited general cleanliness as an example.

“Why would I want to be in a train that smells like smoke?” We spoke with airport staff who were riding the rail from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2, where they park, and several were concerned about unprotected passengers sleeping on the floor. However, some of it is just ‘Is the train on time?’ The perspective is influenced by timeliness. We had to increase the size of our cleaning personnel.”

He explained that in order to do this, transit police have to empty the whole train at the end of each run.

“We care about the homeless, but our trains and public transportation are not an acceptable location to seek refuge.” There is a problem with homelessness. Trains aren’t the answer. Having said that, it is a challenge that we all face. The consumer experience must be warm and friendly.”

The Citizens League’s investigation resulted in a 230-page study titled “Metro Transit Safety Conversation,” which was released in September. Although some of the suggestions have already been implemented, the report as a whole has yet to be formally approved.

The initiative has prompted some soul-searching inside the Metro Transit Police Department, which is independent from the St. Paul and Minneapolis police departments. A Metro Transit Police Work Group recently released its own public safety assessment, and staff recommendations based in part on that study will be submitted to the Met Council in June, most likely.

Some adjustments have already been implemented.

“We went from cloth to plastic,” Zelle explained. “Why? Because we can clean them more quickly. At the stops and on all trains, we installed real-time cameras. It’s fantastic to have cameras, but they attract attention. On the platforms, there are two-way speakers. I was visiting the central command with (Met Council Director of Communications Terri Dressen), and there was a drug sale on the screen. ‘I can see you, stop it,’ said the person watching the cameras, and the individual bolted. There are also several stickers indicating where you may SMS for assistance.”

Adding police aboard trains isn’t a panacea, and some transit advocates are concerned that it may cause unneeded friction. Marcus Abrams, an autistic youngster who was arrested by a Metro Transit police officer for horsing around on a light rail station platform in August 2015, sparked public protests by Black Lives Matter activists and legal action by Abrams’ family.

“When you consider the amount of high school students we serve in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Zelle said, “there’s a scenario where the presence of a uniformed police officer to adolescents is threatening.” “And where do you draw the line between ‘they’re just teens’ and (conduct that necessitates police intervention)?” ”

In light of these concerns, Metro Transit has requested state lawmakers for the legal right to impose administrative penalties instead of criminal charges to fare evaders.

Community service officers might collect fares, allowing cops to focus on priority offenses.

“Having civil power over fare citations would be really beneficial,” Zelle remarked. “The constraint today of having police issue (tickets and penalties) is that it’s kind of known county attorneys would not actually pursue those because the punishment is so high.” It generates an understanding that you cannot ride for free if it’s more like a parking ticket, and we can really collect that cost ourselves.”

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