Jan. 28--Transit rider Holly-Anne Huebscher all but swore she would never ride the Route 16 bus down University Avenue again.
Huebscher, a downtown St. Paul museum worker, was punched by a passenger who then fled by diving out an emergency exit window. She's been through two other run-ins with crime on the same route.
The silver lining has been that police were there fast each time; they caught the passenger who struck her. "The police did respond quickly," she said.
Life on the 16 bus has been anything but ordinary recently. A fatal stabbing, a kick to the head that nearly took off a passenger's tongue and a knife-vs.-hammer fight involving a driver have tarnished the reputation of Metro Transit's second-busiest route.
Some transit riders are wondering aloud if the same problems will spill over to the nearly $1 billion Central Corridor light-rail line, which closely parallels Route 16 between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.
With the Metropolitan Council regional planning agency preparing to debut the 11-mile line June 14, officials are eager to tackle a perception problem. The high-profile incidents are not the norm, officials say. Nevertheless, the agency is investing in new officers and technology to keep riders safe.
"I think from a public safety perspective, it's going to be safer than ever," said St. Paul City Council member Russ Stark, a frequent bus rider who lives off University Avenue.
Last year, police reported 854 incidents on Route 16, including 22 assaults and 226 reports of disorderly conduct. The numbers are up sharply from 2010, when there were 440 incident reports, including 16 assaults and 97 reports of disorderly conduct.
Part of that increase, Metro Transit officials say, could be attributed to there being more officers to report the problems they see.
To get ahead of crime and boost confidence in the public transit system, Metro Transit Police plan to deploy 22 new officers in and around the new light-rail line on foot and bicycle. All of them will be based out of a new "East Command" police hub on Transfer Road in St. Paul.
"We have added almost 70 officers since I got here," said Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, who started in late 2012. "As the system expands, the transit police have expanded, also."
The latest hires will bring the overall transit police force to 94 full-time officers and 100 part-time officers before summer. There will be 45 officers based out of East Command, which serves transit routes in St. Paul and the eastern suburbs. The department also maintains a command center in Minneapolis.
Policing on a system constantly in motion provides its own challenges.
While there are at least 2,500 officer-boardings each month throughout the system, its main crime prevention strategy is not to have police riding up and down the line. Instead, the focus is on community outreach and on policing known hotspots, such as teenage after-school hangouts and bars after closing time.
"Particularly in a downtown area, it's probably more effective to have police be at stops," said John Siqveland, a Metro Transit spokesman.
When the Green Line, as the Central Corridor will be known, starts rolling, each train will be monitored by 10 security cameras. And much like trains on the Hiawatha Blue Line, there also will be emergency intercoms that that connect directly to the driver.
Each station platform will have call boxes and at least four additional cameras. Larger stations will have as many as 10 cameras that will be controlled remotely to allow officers to zoom in on suspicious activity.
Metro Transit Police say they're also working closely with city police departments.
"We're sharing information, we're sharing data, and putting officers in hotspots," said Capt. Jim Franklin, who was promoted to oversee East Command this past summer.
The challenge is clear, as the Green Line is being set up to capture more ridership than parallel bus routes. Where Route 16 has about 15,500 passenger boardings on a weekday, the Met Council projects 40,000 weekday boardings on the light-rail line by 2030.