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Lawmakers seek to reduce the fare evasion penalty on light rail and fast bus lines

Of the nearly 39 million rides made by Metro Transit passengers last year, 49 citations were issued by police to passengers who didn’t pay for their fare. In 2021, only 10 summons for fare evasion were written.

The small number of citations seems to suggest that the transit agency has abandoned sweeping efforts to penalize passengers who board without paying. Spokesman Drew Kerr said Metro Transit was committed to improving fare compliance but admitted, “We can always do better.”

Now some state lawmakers appear determined to fix Metro Transit’s fare collection system, even though four previous attempts at the Capitol have failed.

Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, plans to introduce a bill that makes it easier to punish fare evaders by issuing them an administrative citation, similar to a parking ticket, rather than threatening them with a misdemeanor with a possible fine of $180 — a seldom-prosecuted fine that’s essentially meaningless, he said.

Elkins and Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, also want to give non-police personnel the authority to cite transit passengers who do not pay. Only Metro Transit police officers can now issue such citations and only after a prior warning. In 2022, 542 such notices were issued; in 2021 there were 689.

The debate over how to tackle fare evasion comes as Metro Transit attempts to lure back customers who have fled during the COVID-19 pandemic and assure them the system is safe to ride despite recent reports showing last year the crime on trains and buses – mostly simple assaults and nuisance violations such as drug use and alcohol law violations – increased by 54%.

Transit officials attribute the problem to vacancies in the Metro Transit Police Department, which is down by more than 90 full-time and part-time police officers due to a persistent hiring shortage. Police are addressing more pressing public safety needs, they say.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said the measures have “a 100% chance of passing” now that Democrats dominate on Capitol Hill, though a similar effort has generated support. bipartisan last year.

Passengers taking Metro Transit and Northstar Commuter Rail’s light rail and bus rapid transit lines must pay for tickets before boarding or use a transit pass. Otherwise, it’s considered a low-level offense and, according to critics, not aggressively prosecuted by city and county attorneys.

An audit conducted by the Metropolitan Council in 2020 found that only about 2.6% of Metro Transit police-issued citations resulted in a payment. If the fines are eventually paid, Metro Transit doesn’t even get the money – it goes to court.

“The subpoena is disproportionate to the offense and has never been followed up by the justice system,” Dibble said.

Failure to purchase a transit ticket shouldn’t be a crime, said Sam Rockwell, executive director of Move Minnesota, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable transportation. He said such a policy disproportionately singles out people of color for prosecution.

“It’s crazy that someone who fails to pay a $2 transit fee faces a permanent criminal record while someone who fails to pay a $5 parking meter fee pays a fine and can get on with their life,” Rockwell said.

Stay on course

A key component in the proposed legislation to improve fare compliance involves allowing community service officers and other Metro Transit personnel to cite passengers for failing to pay their fares.

Using non-police personnel to check fares is in line with transit agencies in other cities, according to a report last year from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The ratio of police officers to vulnerable communities aboard public transport may be “complicated by overpolicing,” the report notes.

In 2017, video footage of a part-time Metro Transit officer asking a Blue Line passenger about his immigrant status while checking his fare went viral on social media, causing a stir.

Unlike many transit systems in the United States, stations in the Twin Cities are not closed with gates or turnstiles to discourage non-payers. St. Louis was the same way, until officials decided to retrofit 39 MetroLink light rail stations with gates and turnstiles, making it a “closed system” as part of a larger effort to improve security.

The $52 million project, of which $11 million is paid for by corporate donors, is underway.

“We’re focusing on creating as much of a safety bubble as possible,” said Kevin Scott, general manager of St. Louis transit operator Bi-State Development. “Take the problematic behavior out of our system.”

Retrofitting Metro Transit stations with gates and turnstiles would be “extremely challenging,” Kerr said, given that most of them were built level and in an urban setting. The ticket machines would need to be moved, she said, and there would be issues with accessibility, snow removal and maintenance.

Some public transport agencies have opted for even more dramatic solutions to deal with fare evasion, even to the point of making public transport free, as a way to achieve fairness and increase the number of passengers decimated by the pandemic. Kansas City, Mo., is thus far the largest city nationwide to experience free transit.

There has been no serious talk among Metro Transit officials about doing the same, especially since about $46 million in fare revenue was raised last year.

For now, Kerr said, Metro Transit will stay the course. “The most effective deterrent to addressing non-compliance and other bad behavior,” she said, “is to build a stronger official presence on transit.”

Previous versions of this story incorrectly reported the number of rides Metro Transit passengers made last year. It should be almost 39 million. Additionally, a number of previous efforts at the Capitol to fix Metro Transit’s fare collection system have been misreported. There should be four.

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