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.
There are also two other Metro Transit routes that parallel the 16: the limited stop Route 50, which also runs mostly along University Avenue; and the express Route 94, which runs on Interstate 94. Those routes run less fequently and carry fewer passengers.
Once the Green Line begins running, Route 50 will be discontinued, and Route 94 will shut down on evenings and weekends.
TROUBLE ON 16
Longtime rider Catricia Washington said the Route 16 bus is generally safe but gets "hectic" on weekends, when younger riders tend to board in groups.
John Sherman, who has been riding the 16 bus for 25 years, put it this way: "Kids are noisy."
While rowdiness was the main gripe of a few recent riders, it is a recent spat of violence that has caught the headlines. Among the incidents:
-- In July 2012, a man was found stabbed to death near Rice Street and University Avenue in St. Paul after a fight that began on the 16 bus. The incident reportedly began after one man bumped the other on the bus, and the altercation continued near the bus stop.
-- On Oct. 2, 2013, police were called to a St. Paul bus stop when a hammer-wielding bus driver faced off against a passenger armed with a knife. The two argued after the passenger tried to photograph the driver with her cell phone, according to charges against the driver.
-- In November 2013, a young man with a shoeprint on his forehead told police he had been followed off the Route 16 bus at University and Chatsworth Street, then jumped, beaten and robbed by a former school acquaintance and some other young men.
-- Also in November, a passenger allegedly kicked a fellow passenger in the head so hard his tongue was nearly cut in half. According to criminal charges, surveillance video showed the victim had offered to help out his attacker's girlfriend, who had asked riders for change for $1.
Transit officials say such violence is far from typical. The 16 bus is one of only three overnight Metro Transit routes -- the others are Route 5 and Route 19 linking Brooklyn Center and parts of Minneapolis -- and among its busiest, spokesman Siqveland said.
He noted that the 854 reported incidents on the Route 16 last year averages out to be one incident for every 5,200 riders.
"On Route 16, the majority of incidents are going to be quality of life and nuisance crime, just as it generally is throughout the majority of the transit system: disorderly conduct, loitering or smoking," he said.
Damian Goebel, a spokesman for the transit advocates St. Paul Smart Trips, said most commuters who contact his organization are excited for the new light-rail and not worried about crime and safety.
"During the morning and afternoon rush, the Green Line would operate more like the current (limited stop) Route 50, which has a pretty low crime rate," Goebel said.
The Green Line will have 18 station stops, while the Route 16 currently has 150 stops.
FORCE UNDER FIRE
Metro Transit police have heard criticism of their general operations in the past -- and not just from riders.
In 2012, an independent report by the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute said the department showed a "failure to comprehensively and consistently track and report incident data."
The report said the department lacked a clear sense of mission and "evidence-based, data-driven police practice."
It also said many officers thought they were being used as ticket-takers and farebox watchers, rather than as law enforcement on routes that needed the most policing.
Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief, took over the Metro Transit department around the time the report was issued and pledged to help the department better define its role.
He has focused on mundane issues -- such as altering a police patch he felt was not instantly recognizable as a law enforcement badge -- and more complicated endeavors, such as decentralizing the command center.
Transit police now study ridership patterns and compare them with crime patterns in nearby neighborhoods.
"We've brought on crime analysis, which didn't exist beforehand," Harrington said. "We've worked with our local police departments to identify where we need to be. ... I think we've become more responsive and much quicker to deal with those issues."
In recent years, Metro Transit and St. Paul police have increased their presence near downtown bus stops along Fifth Street in response to reports of confrontations involving young people near bus shelters.
"That has reduced crime substantially in downtown, both call volume and complaints," Harrington said. "You look at downtown Minneapolis, at Seventh and Nicollet, same thing. Do you really want the cop (on board) for an hour ride, when you have certain hotspots?"
Officers, often in plainclothes, will continue to ride buses and trains, though, he said.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges have pointed to the importance of providing transit options to attract talented young professionals interested in car-free, urban living. Part of the success of that will require transit remain a hospitable experience.
Hilary Reeves, a spokeswoman for Transit for Livable Communities, a St. Paul-based transit advocacy group, said people who have never ridden the bus and many first-time riders often ask about personal safety, but they should feel reassured.
Limited research exists on the link between light-rail and crime, but Reeves noted that a 2011 study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs found that property crime actually decreased near new light-rail stations in Charlotte, N.C.
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.
Copyright 2014 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.