Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle discusses transit ridership and safety issues – Twin Cities

Ridership on Metro Transit’s light rail, commuter rail and buses is half of what it was before the pandemic, and even some longtime transit advocates have lamented route cuts and a visible increase in harmful activities such as smoking in train cars, as well as some of the higher profile crimes.

The Northstar Commuter Rail from Minneapolis to Big Lake, which once offered 14 weekday trips, now offers four.

In 2019, fare box revenue — money collected from passenger fares — accounted for nearly a quarter of Metro Transit’s operating budget. While final figures are still being audited, farebox revenue is only expected to cover 12% of annual operations in 2021.

Financial reserves and federal relief funds from the CARES Act have helped the transit company balance its books, but it won’t last forever.

How can Metro Transit — which operates the Green Line light rail transit from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis — improve its situation?

“The number one priority for us has to be safety, security and I would say the perception of security,” Charlie Zelle, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, said in a recent interview. “We are in a chicken or egg scenario. People don’t take public transit because it doesn’t feel welcoming, and yet it won’t until we have a critical mass of passengers…to create more eyes and ears, and better, more normative behavior.

POLICE PRESENCE

This graph shows average Metro Transit ridership in the week before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Metro Transit)

On April 30, online newspaper Alpha News reported that Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell – who is in the process of leaving the department – ​​had requested that all part-time officers be assigned a shift. of “light rail only”, effectively driving the Blue and Green lines for hours to enforce basic rules against disorderly behavior, smoking, drug use and fare evasion.

The site cited an internal email from Frizell to his department that read, “This effort will increase officer presence on the Green and Blue Light Rail lines. This effort will be assessed for effectiveness every 72 hours and adjusted accordingly for the next 30 days.

A spokesperson for Metro Transit declined to release an unredacted copy of the email, citing security concerns, but was working to redact a version Thursday evening.

“It includes detailed descriptions of deployment strategies, including the number of officers who should be assigned to specific geographic areas,” Metro Transit spokeswoman Laura Baenen said in an email.

She noted, however, that the greater emphasis on light rail “reflects our standard practice of dispatching officers to parts of the transit system where there is the greatest demonstrated need for an official presence, based on service calls and other staff and customer feedback.”

‘POCKETS OF BAD BEHAVIOR’

Zelle acknowledged that as downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis reopen to office workers who had spent much of the pandemic working remotely, as well as sports, concerts, conventions and special events, even low-level challenges like trash reinforce a sense of neglect. when a car is running almost empty.

“Some of our best evidence is frankly anecdotal evidence, both from our customers and from our employees and investigations,” Zelle said. “There are pockets of bad behavior – noise, smoking. … Nuisance crimes are statistically down because traffic is down, but the look of it has an effect. It’s an interconnected question that we’re trying to think about, but it’s one that we readily admit we need to address.

He added, “I was commenting to someone in downtown Minneapolis. We were walking down Ninth Street, and the same group of guys were hanging out in front of the JB Hudson jewelers, they were hanging out there two years ago. They were there three years ago. But now they’re the only guys on the street. The perception is therefore different.

But annual trends suggest things could be looking up. Metro Transit officials say year-over-year crime reports have plummeted and ridership has increased nearly every month since April 2021.

By the end of March, more than 8.4 million journeys had been made this year, up 21% from the same period last year. More information is available online at metrotransit.org/performance.

RAMSEY COUNTY TRANSIT GRANT

While Metro Transit draws its funding from a variety of sources, including motor vehicle sales taxes and the federal Congestion Mitigation and Clean Air Program, county dollars are not an insignificant part of the fundraising cake.

Ramsey County will spend $6 million to subsidize the Green Line this year with money from the county’s transit sales tax.

Also this year, an additional $10 million from the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority property tax will support the general development of the future Purple Line, a 15-mile bus rapid transit route stretching from St. Paul at White Bear Lake.

The county will tap into the two coffers for an additional $25.5 million for engineering the Purple Line and use the rail authority levy to spend $24 million on building the Gold Line, a transmission line 10-mile bus rapid transit that will run from St. Paul to Woodbury.

Hennepin County subsidizes similar service extensions.

CITIZENS LEAGUE EFFORT

Following the May 2020 death of George Floyd, a black man murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, the Minneapolis Parks Board severed ties with Minneapolis police.

Metro Transit went in a different direction. Zelle, president of intercity bus company Jefferson Lines and former state commissioner of transportation, chose instead to engage the Citizens League in what would become a year-long effort to think about improving safety. service on light rail and buses without sacrificing the passenger experience or the trust of the communities served.

“Transit was kind of in the middle of some of the aftermath with George Floyd,” Zelle said. “We took some obvious steps, but instead of eliminating our relationships with certain police units, we took a step back and said we really need to think about our practices and our policies. … We needed to hear ‘what do we mean when we talk about customer experience and security?’ It’s a very nuanced combination. It’s not just about more law enforcement, and it’s not just about more service.

One example is general cleanliness, he noted.

“The perception of a train, when it smells of smoke, why would I want to be in it? We spoke to airport workers who take the train from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 where they park, and frankly some were scared because of the unprotected passengers sleeping on the floor. But partly it’s just “Is the train on time”? News has an impact on perception. We had to double our cleaning crews.

To do this, transit police had to clear the entire train at the end of each ride, he said.

“We care about the (unprotected), but frankly our trains and public transport are not a suitable place to shelter. There is a roaming problem. Trains are not the solution. That said, it is our collective problem. We need to make the customer experience welcoming.

The result of the Citizens League review is a 230-page report, released in September, titled “Metro Transit Safety Conversation.” Some recommendations have already been implemented, but the overall report has not yet been formally adopted.

SUBWAY POLICE

The effort also led to soul-searching within the Metro Police Department, an entirely separate jurisdiction from the St. Paul and Minneapolis police. A Metro Transit Police task force released its own report on public safety not too long ago, and staff recommendations based in part on that report will be presented to the Met Council, likely in June.

Some changes have already moved forward.

“We changed the seats from cloth to plastic,” Zelle said. “Why? Because we can clean them faster. We have installed real-time cameras in stations and on all trains. It’s good to have cameras, but people watch the cameras. There are two-way speakers on the rigs. (Terri Dressen, Met Board Communications Director) and I were visiting Central Command and there was a drug deal going on on screen. said “I can see you, stop it” and the person ran away.There are also lots of stickers that say where you can text for help.

Adding police to trains is not a panacea, and some transit advocates have expressed concern that it could foment unnecessary conflict. The August 2015 arrest of Marcus Abrams – an autistic teenager who was brutally apprehended by a Metro Transit policeman for walking on the platform of a light rail station – sparked street protests by defenders of Black Lives Matter, as well as legal action from Abrams’ family.

“When you think about the number of high school students we serve in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there’s a scenario where having a uniformed police officer for youth seems scary,” Zelle acknowledged. “And where is the line between ‘they’re just teenagers’ and (behaviour requiring police intervention)?”

PRICES

With these issues in mind, Metro Transit asked state legislators for the legal authority to impose administrative fines on fraudsters in lieu of criminal citations.

This would free up officers to focus on priority crimes and community services officers could collect tariffs.

“Having the civil authority for quoting rates would be really helpful,” Zelle said. “The restriction now of having police trouble (tickets and fines), because it’s such a high penalty, it’s a bit known that county prosecutors wouldn’t prosecute them. If it’s more of a parking ticket, and we can collect that fee ourselves, it develops an awareness that you can’t ride for free. »

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