Bills would place security guards on buses and LRTs, and reduce fines for fare evasion

Only 49 people were fined for failing to pay their fares on Metro Transit buses and trains in 2018 and 2019. But that doesn’t mean Minnesotans are particularly diligent about paying for their commute on public transport. .

The reality, according to the Metropolitan Council, is that local prosecutors are inclined to prosecute much more serious crimes instead of a $ 180 fine for an unpaid $ 2 transit ticket.

Two measures pending at the State Capitol would change the way fares are collected on transit in the Twin Cities – a pivot that supporters say will make the system safer and more fun to drive.

Both bills would make fare evasion on Metro Transit an administrative citation of $ 35, similar to a parking ticket.

They are also calling on “public transport safety officials” – not police officers – to take light rail trains and some buses to collect fares, answer questions and connect homeless passengers and those in need. mental health or addiction problems to available services.

The effort in the legislature enjoys rare bipartisan support.

“I think the outlook is pretty good,” said Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, who wrote the House bill. “Last time it was tough. This year’s bill is simpler and cleaner.”

A recent convert is Senator Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, Chairman of the Senate Finance and Transportation Policy Committee. “There is really nothing wrong with going from a criminal citation to a civil citation,” he said at a recent committee hearing.

“It’s important to have someone on the train in uniform [who] is easily identified as someone a passenger can speak to, with some semblance of responsibility and authority, ”Newman added.

The new transport agents are said to be unarmed but work closely with the Metro Transit police force. The Met Council, which operates Metro Transit, hopes to hire up to 54 of them by 2023.

Agents would tour the green and blue light rail lines and several high-speed bus lines where fares are paid at transit stations and not on board – roughly a third of Metro Transit’s service.

The concept of decriminalizing fare evasion and deploying unarmed transit agents is gaining popularity in cities across the United States.

A to study released by transit advocacy group East Metro Strong revealed that more than a dozen transit agencies nationwide are using unarmed, uniformed personnel to patrol their systems and check fares. Most agencies penalize fraudsters with a minor misdemeanor or administrative citation. East Metro Strong executive director Will Schroeer said efforts by other agencies “are improving security and the customer experience.”

Seattle’s transit system will begin using uniformed fare controllers in a pilot program later this year, focusing on educating passengers about fares and connecting low-income passengers with discount programs, spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham said.

However, not everyone agrees with Minnesota’s law.

Rep. Donald Raleigh, R-Circle Pines, a member of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee, said he was concerned transit officials would violate Fourth Amendment rights of passengers banning searches unreasonable in demanding their personal information.

The tariff control would result in “a private citizen asking for your papers from another citizen,” he said, noting that the practice could open the state and the Met Council to litigation. The measure was passed by the committee over objections from Raleigh and six others.

Efforts to build a force of transit agents and decriminalize fares began early last year in the legislature. But the bill stalled in a House committee and failed to achieve success in the Senate.

A high-profile increase in serious crime – robberies, aggravated assaults and thefts – in light rail trains at the end of 2019 made the transport safety debate particularly heavy. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Capitol Hill’s priorities shifted.

The Senate bill calls on Metro Transit to adopt and post a code of conduct for passengers, mark paid fare zones at transit stations and launch real-time security monitoring systems to spot crime – all the practices already in place.

The bill would strengthen the ban on passengers who have committed transit crimes and require Hennepin and Ramsey counties to help fund the program. The Met Council has said it will use federal pandemic stimulus money to pay for the program over the next two years.

Public transport ridership fell 53% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and travel remains limited to essential excursions such as work, school and errands.

Still, said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, co-author of the House bill, “As the runners come back [to transit], they will have a new experience. Everyone agrees that safety is important to a successful transit system. “

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

Twitter: @ByJanetMoore

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