Lawmakers making push for transit safety

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The issue isn’t new to state lawmakers but safety on light rail trains and other public transit has reached a point where the need for action is growing more urgent.

“As a regular transit user, the state of the light rail system to me is shocking,” transit rider David Peterson of Minneapolis testified before the Minnesota House Transportation Committee. “The drug use is out of control. There are fentanyl wrappers all over the floor of the train.”

The committee held a hearing on a bill authored by Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, that would authorize a million dollars to employ social workers along the transit line for a three-month period as a short-term measure while longer-term solutions are sought. Tabke says the social workers from the state and Hennepin County would “enforce what it is to be a transit rider and make sure we have a culture of safe and comfortable riding on our transit system.” The bill would also create a “code of conduct” for transit riders.

“We have a massive, massive problem that we need to take action and we’re taking legislative action today,” Tabke said.

Some transit riders, including 28-year-old Aiden Kilgannon, a young man with Down syndrome who was assaulted and robbed by a woman on a light rail train last month, say the help can’t come soon enough.

“She took my bag … and then she used her shoe, whacked the side of my head and spit in my face twice,” he told lawmakers as he testified alongside his mother, Eva Johnson. “So this person is being charged with assault and robbery,” she testified, adding, “Safety has now tilted into a concern that I can no longer allow for my young, adult, amazing son with Down syndrome to ride on regular route public transportation. It is not safe. Something needs to change.”

Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle also testified about his hopes to hire more transit police officers. The Metro Transit Police force is authorized to have 171 sworn officers but now has only 107. However, he says Metro Transit is adding many more cameras.

RELATED: Ridership rebounded by 17% in 2022, Met Council says

“Real-time cameras … not just on the platforms but on every train car,” Zelle told lawmakers. “They come together in a central information center so that they’re monitored every step of the way.”

Zelle acknowledged they often catch criminals in the act but don’t always deter crimes from happening.

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, questioned Zelle about why the crime problem was allowed to grow nearly out of control.

“Why was it allowed to escalate to this particular level?” Petersburg asked. “What you’ve done up to this point, obviously, since it’s now failed, it’s kind of silly to keep doing it.”

“We take full responsibility for the activity on the transit system,” Zelle responded, “and I think had we not taken steps starting three years ago, it might have actually been worse.”

Debate on Tabke’s bill will resume on Tuesday. Other legislation that will be broader in scope is also expected this session.

Follow the progress of this bill and other hot-button legislation on KSTP’s Legislative Tracker.