While riding the Blue Line over the holidays, Ernest Morales III was approached by a Metro Transit officer who asked him: "Did you pay your fare?"
Morales — Metro Transit's police chief, who had indeed paid the fare — later laughed about the encounter with the community service officer (CSO) and said it was proof that the transit agency's new fare compliance program is working.
The officer "knew who I was, and I knew he had to ask," Morales said.
According to Metro Transit, its CSOs have conducted more than 8,500 fare inspections aboard the Green and Blue light-rail trains since the Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP) launched Dec. 4 — checks that resulted in nearly 500 citations issued to passengers who hadn't paid to ride.
The figures are a remarkable uptick in citations previously issued by Metro Transit for fare evasion. While more than 1,300 were issued in 2019, that number dropped to 573 in 2020 and then plummeted to 10 in 2021, and 49 in 2022. Many stopped writing them up because they knew fare evaders are rarely prosecuted.
The new push to ferret out fare evaders comes following legislative approval last year of the TRIP effort, which changed nonpayment of fares from a misdemeanor that carried a $180 penalty to an administrative citation bearing a $35 fine — similar to a parking ticket.
The law now also permits non-police officers — both CSOs and private security guards — to issue citations to passengers who don't pay. Some 460 citations were issued in December under the new program (figures for the rest of 2023 were not available).
"Our plan is to have police officers focused on more public safety concerns," said Metro Transit General Manager Lesley Kandaras.
Officials say the broader benefit of the program is a beefier official presence on the trains, aiming to give passengers some peace of mind as Metro Transit tries to tamp down criminal, erratic and nuisance behavior, including smoking and drug and alcohol use.
"I think people are happy there's more of a uniformed presence on trains," said Morales, who took over the top job at the Metro Transit Police Department last March.
The community service officers will concentrate on issuing citations to fare evaders and educating passengers about the transit system's code of conduct. If a serious problem arises, they will alert transit police.
"There's more interaction with customers, more visibility," said Kandaras. "Hopefully it helps us demonstrate there are rules for riding on transit and one of those rules is paying your fare. We're really underscoring that message because it's important to follow the rules while you're riding."
Metro Transit's challenge now involves recruiting more community service officers to the fold. The agency currently employs only 13, despite having the budget to support 70. It offers CSOs, who are police officers in training, tuition reimbursement and the opportunity for a full-time job as a cop once they graduate from a law enforcement program.
Private security guards will help CSOs in coming months with fare checks, focusing mainly on the Green and Blue light-rail lines and the system's bus-rapid transit lines, both of which require passengers to pay before they board.
The Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, in December amended its existing contract with global security giant Allied Universal, adding fare checks to the list of responsibilities covered by its guards. Its contract with Allied, which provides private security officers at several light-rail stations, now stands at $11 million.
Kandaras said the inspections go beyond issuing citations to fare offenders. They're an opportunity to spread the word about $1 fares available through the Transit Assistance Program and about a recently enacted code of conduct guiding behavior aboard transit — a central tenet of which is that passengers should pay.
A fare scofflaw can reduce their fine by purchasing $20 in transit fares to be used in the future, or by watching a video at the Metro Transit Service Center detailing rider expectations. Repeat offenders will be prohibited from using transit for 60 to 120 days.
At the same time, Metro Transit will soon begin the process of clearly marking paid fare zones at most stations throughout the light-rail system.
And the agency is studying whether adding gates or turnstiles at key light-rail stations would deter fare dodgers and enhance customers' sense of security. Stations under consideration for turnstiles are Franklin Avenue and 46th Street on the Blue Line, Snelling Avenue on the Green Line, and Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, which is served by both lines.
It's all part of Metro Transit's expansive safety plan to improve the passenger experience following the surge in crime on buses and trains in recent years. Crime declined by 22% in the third quarter of 2023; the final tally for the year will be released next month.
Metro Transit officials acknowledge that many of society's ills land on public transportation, including homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and mental illness. In that vein, the agency recently launched the Transit Service Intervention Project, partnering with social service agencies to help passengers in need. The project is funded with $2 million in state money.
A recent encounter at Mall of America Station underscored the challenges facing Metro Transit. After a Blue Line train pulled up, Morales and two police officers approached a man who was attempting to urinate on the platform.
"Do you think it's OK to pee in public?" an officer asked the man, who appeared agitated.
"It's better than me wetting my pants," the man replied.
Morales told the man there were consequences to his actions, and then asked him: "What can I do to help you?"
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