Met Council’s Zelle fails to curtail crime from soaring on light rail lines

We’ve heard it all before from Met Council chairman Charles Zelle, who oversees Metro Transit and the Twin Cities’ light rail lines. Promises and plans to crack down on the crime and vagrants that threaten public safety and prevent a post-pandemic return to the light rail lines.

Yet crime on the Blue and Green lines has shot up nearly 30 percent over last year through the month of September. An in-depth report by the Star Tribune shows Metro Transit’s comprehensive crime prevention plan falls far short of expectations.

Metro Transit adopted a 40-point Action Plan last summer to improve transit safety, using feedback from customers, employees and others to develop recommendations ranging from shorter trains to more police. It will be reviewed quarterly to find out what works.

Such plans may seem immaterial to passengers like Maria Canas of Crystal. She takes the Blue Line to her job at the Mall of America and says she mostly feels safe. But recently two people had sex on the train not far from where she was sitting.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. So she sank down in her seat and pretended to sleep.

For starters, the agency continues to have little luck at recruiting and retaining police officers, the first step in reestablishing control of the system. Metro Transit remains dozens of officers under the number of cops needed and budgeted for. In fact, the agency has resorted to hiring private security cops to patrol some of the most dangerous light rail stations.

Despite a recent salary bump and a $39 million annual budget, attracting new officers has been challenging for the Metro Transit police. Fewer people are pursuing law enforcement careers in the wake of Floyd’s murder in 2020 and its aftermath. Many department veterans are retiring or moving on.

As of Sept. 27, Metro Transit police was staffed at only 64% of its fully-funded complement, with 109 full-time officers and 51 part-time. The budget includes funding for 70 community service officers — unarmed officers-in-training who patrol trains and buses — but only 14 have been hired so far.

Moreover, the department’s Homeless Action Team, which connects homeless passengers with social services, is not fully staffed. Nor is the Real Time Information Center, where workers monitor activity at light-rail stations from a central command post in Minneapolis.

A persistent negative public perception of light rail due to the threat of crime remains an obstacle to attracting riders back to the public transit system following the pandemic. Those who have no choice but to ride light rail to their jobs don’t dare to let their guards down while on board.

Lisa Webb purposely sits with her back against the front of the Green Line train when she rides to her job at a north metro fast food restaurant from her home on St. Paul’s East Side. From her perch, she’s seen a woman stabbed near the train and passengers using drugs and smoking. Some she sees are mentally ill and need help.

Webb, who must use transit because she doesn’t own a car, minds her own business but admits she often feels afraid. “The cops,” she said, “are barely around.”

For years the Met Council has acknowledged the risks and unpleasant conditions the public too often faces in taking a chance on Metro Transit light rail and busses. Yet the agency’s chairman and members, appointees of Governor Tim Walz, never get held accountable. But the Star Tribune points out the agency’s credibility in overseeing existing and future public transit projects is on the line.

…it challenges the plans of the Metropolitan Council — which oversees Metro Transit — to develop more light rail and bus lines throughout the Twin Cities.

And it raises questions — particularly among the Met Council’s many critics — as to whether the multibillion-dollar transit systems, funded with public money, are being effectively managed.