Without help from the Legislature or Congress, Metro Transit is in trouble

Funding, pandemic, labor woes weigh on beleaguered agency

By: - November 23, 2020 5:30 am

Abigael Ensor, a first-year Metro Transit operator, adjusts her mirror while waiting for her departure time at Brooklyn Center Transit Center on September 29, 2020. Photo: Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

This year has been a wild ride for Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council that manages it. They traded a driver shortage for a pandemic that decimated ridership and revenue, forcing it to cut service for the foreseeable future. Metro Transit continues to struggle for stable funding, while receiving endless criticism from its riders and workers, including its operators, who may strike amid extreme stress around the pandemic and their contract. 

This isn’t the first time the agency has encountered funding issues. It’s primarily funded by the federal government, a state sales tax on cars, and bus and train fare. Demand for Metro Mobility, which helps the elderly and those with limited mobility get around, has more than doubled since 2004, leaving no state money for regular bus service. The Legislature has not addressed the deficit since it passed one-time funding to prop up the system in 2017, and the Met Council also increased fares for the first time in 10 years. 

The pandemic and a 60% decrease in ridership from last year only made things worse, costing the agency more than $241 million over the next two years. Service cuts, $214 million in CARES Act funding and spending additional reserves saved the day, but without any action from the federal government and the Legislature, they’ll run out of money by the end of 2021. Given divided government in both Washington and St. Paul, transit funding will continue to face a tough political environment.  

Barb Thoman, a St. Paul-based transportation consultant, founded what is now Move Minnesota to lobby for more funding. “Unlike (the Minnesota Department of Transportation), which has three sources of constitutionally-dedicated sources of funding, Metro Transit has to cobble their budget from every legislative session.” 

The funding problems make it harder for people without cars. Service was cut to 80% of pre-pandemic levels, and buses are subject to capacity limits — 10 people for a standard bus, 15 for a big “accordion” bus. “It’s much more of a hassle to ride,” Kimani Lewis, a Route 18 rider, said recently. 

Drivers can’t enforce capacity limits by kicking people off, and they must stop for anyone with a disability and tell them they cannot board. The end result is that buses are at times over capacity, threatening to further the spread of COVID-19. The Reformer recently observed a 40-foot bus on Route 18 with 25 onboard, more than twice capacity. To keep riders and drivers safe, the agency instituted strict cleaning regimens, and gave operators masks and barriers to safely collect fares. 

But record-breaking COVID-19 caseloads worry Metro Transit drivers like Abigael Ensor, who contend with occasionally overcrowded buses and people who either don’t wear masks or wear them incorrectly. “Or they wear it when they get on and then take it off when they sit down,” Ensor said. Ensor has a medical condition that makes her vulnerable to COVID-19, which has stricken 166 personnel, including 99 operators, as of mid-November. So far, none have died. 

Despite Metro Transit capping the capacity of a 40-foot standard bus (pictured) to 10 people, on October 9, a 40-foot bus operating on Route 18 had 25 people. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Jerry Hildreth, a Brooklyn Park resident who rides Route 5 to his early morning shift at a Holiday near Metro Transit’s headquarters, doesn’t like wearing masks. “It’s hard to breathe,” he said. “Just pray and hope you don’t get [COVID-19].” 

On November 9, General Manager Wes Kooistra reported at a Met Council meeting that 60% of light rail riders were observed through a live feed wearing masks, as well as 85% of bus riders. They’ve since begun using their police force to enforce the mandate. Because of the agency’s funding woes and safety concerns, they can’t provide masks. By contrast, TriMet — the transit agency serving Portland, Oregon — spent just over $1.6 million to date to equip all of their vehicles with mask dispensers.

Buses can be incubators of COVID-19, as demonstrated by a study conducted earlier this year in eastern China. A Fresno State study recommended steps that Metro Transit is already taking, like requiring masks and testing UV filters. The study also said positive air pressure is a good idea. The agency’s buses circulate a mix of recycled and fresh air

Driver morale is low, transit workers say. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 says the recent contract vote was the largest contract vote turnout in a decade; 94% of operators rejected the agency’s offer of a one-time payment of $825 for full-time represented workers or $600 for part-time represented workers; and $3-per-hour hazard pay for hours worked from March 23 to May 15. The union wanted a 2.5% raise, as well as a $3-per-hour hazard pay until September 1. The two sides began full negotiations on November 13.

On the upside, the agency’s capital projects continue to move along. They recently launched a more accurate bus arrival prediction system that incorporates past travel time data influenced by traffic and weather, while also allowing riders to track all of its buses by their fleet number.

The Legislature’s latest bonding bill includes $55 million for two new bus rapid transit lines — the B and D lines — which will be completed by 2022. The $2 billion Southwest light rail project, which will connect Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins and St. Louis Park, received federal funding and will be complete by 2023. Two new light rail trains for the line will arrive every month for the next 10 months. And because the original Bottineau light rail project was scuttled, the Met Council will begin engaging communities about a new route later this year. 

Metro Transit is also getting new standard buses, the first of which will replace its Red Line buses next year. They also plan to purchase up to 180 accordion buses over the next five years, enough to start service for its future bus rapid transit lines and replace its existing accordion buses. But they don’t have any more money to expand and electrify its fleet unless Xcel Energy is approved by the state to rebate electric bus purchases. They’re also taking 10 years to replace 70% of their 25-year-old fareboxes that San Francisco was able to do in two years

The Orange Line, a rapid bus line which will operate between Minneapolis and Burnsville on I-35W, will open next year when I-35W construction concludes. A new D line won’t have a station at 38th and Chicago, where George Floyd was killed, just yet. “A future station will be constructed through a cooperative partnership, to be shaped by ongoing engagement,” said Metro Transit spokesperson Howie Padilla. Activists continue to occupy the intersection until their demands are met.

The agency also plans to provide daily service to Woodbury when ridership rebounds, and eventually plan to connect it with a bus line running on dedicated lanes. 

They’re also planning to upgrade three more lines, including possibly Route 10, in the coming years. It’s a welcome prospect for Andreas Sanders, who stays at a Minneapolis shelter and commutes three hours to his job in Coon Rapids. “It would be great to make it like the C Line, to make it faster and more convenient,” Sanders said as he rode the bus on his way from work. 

These lines are a part of the agency’s plans to advance equity and reduce longstanding regional disparities. Metro Transit implemented a program granting one-dollar rides to low-income and unemployed people and plans to implement an Uber/Lyft-like pilot service in north Minneapolis next year, funded partially by Ford and the Department of Energy. They’re also pushing for imperiled legislation to decriminalize fare evasion at the Capitol

In June, inspired by an operator’s refusal to transport police officers or arrestees during the Floyd unrest, Metro Transit administrative employees circulated and delivered a petition to leadership demanding restructuring, increased transparency and preparedness amid future unrest. The agency’s Equity and Inclusion Committee on October 21 announced 55 recommendations addressing those issues, details of which will be released this month. The Met Council also brought on the Citizens League to evaluate the agency’s police force. The agency did not immediately comment on the petition’s demands. 

(Disclosure: The writer was one of the founders of the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union and served on their Steering Committee from September 2017 to September 2018, and again from March 2019 to May 2019. The organization supports electric buses, making fares free, and decriminalizing fare evasion. The writer is no longer involved in the organization.) 

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Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.