Lawmakers drafting bill that would put social workers on light-rail trains

‘Ambassadors’ would help deal with drug use, homeless people, people with mental health problems

By: - February 10, 2023 3:34 pm

A Metro Transit Police officer rouses a passenger who was asleep as the train went out of service at Union Depot Station in St. Paul on July 16, 2021. A pandemic-induced ridership decrease spurred an increase in safety and quality-of-life complaints on Metro Transit’s light rail and rapid bus network. (H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer)

Rep. Brad Tabke said he wrecked his pickup on the first day of the legislative session, so he’s been regularly riding the light rail from downtown Minneapolis to the state Capitol, and it’s been an eye-opener for the Shakopee Democrat.

“I see everything,” he said.

He said safety on the Metro Transit Blue and Green Lines has “significantly devolved post-COVID” — and the Legislature needs to take action.

Tabke said it’s not a place he would take his children, and the transit system needs a reset.

“No, it’s not OK to smoke on the train. No, it’s not OK to be belligerent with other passengers on the train. No, it’s not OK to be using drugs on the train,” he said during an informal hearing Friday of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee to hear from transit advocates and riders about how to improve conditions on the train. A formal hearing on transit safety will be held Feb. 23.

Tabke is working to quickly pass legislation that would put social workers — or “ambassadors” — on the trains to help enforce rules and assist homeless people or people with mental health or addiction issues.

“The transit system is a magnet for folks in need,” Tabke said.

Lawmakers, the Metropolitan Council — which operates Metro Transit — and transit advocates are wary of using a stronger police presence, fearing racial profiling and pushing unsheltered people into an already overwhelmed criminal justice system.

A bill is being drafted that would have the governor appoint a project manager to implement a three-month “intervention project” by March. Then, a working group and the project manager would set up social service intervention teams that would work with police officers to start working the trains by April 3.

Rep. Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, said many suburban police departments are willing to help; Bloomington Police Chief Booker Hodges said he can hire more police to help deal with transit issues. The Mall of America light rail station and surrounding area are “a huge focus” for the department already, Elkins said.

The bill would require the Met Council to adopt a code of conduct — but not prohibit sleeping on the trains — that a police officer could use to make people get off the trains.

Metro Transit operators packed a hearing earlier this week to watch Met Council members discuss safety. Photo by H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

The hope is to get the project going before light rail traffic — and trouble — picks up this summer. Lawmakers plan a second bill later this session to beef up enforcement by Metro Transit and police.

Minnesota has “very goofy laws” that make fare evasion overly punitive, so it’s rarely charged by prosecutors, Tabke said. The law should be changed so fares are enforced, but the penalty is akin to getting a parking ticket.

State law also makes it a misdemeanor to: 

  • Operate a “radio, television, tape player, electronic musical instrument, or other​ electronic device, other than a watch, which amplifies music, unless the sound emanates​ only from earphones or headphones.”
  • Smoke or carry lighted smoking paraphernalia.
  • Consume food or beverages, except when authorized by the operator or other transit official​.
  • Carry or control an animal without the operator’s consent.​

Tabke said that language may need to be updated. For example, rail rider Dylan Reichstadt said people holding the train doors open for five to 10 minutes is a “crazy” big issue.

The Southwest Light Rail green line extension to Eden Prairie is nearly done, and Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL- Eden Prairie, said her family is counting down the days until the train reaches their suburb. But while knocking on doors to campaign, many of her constituents expressed concerns about the light rail’s arrival. It may seem trivial to others, but she’s concerned about profanity-laden music some people play on the trains.

Rider John Dillery said he doesn’t ride the trains as much as he used to, and wants to be in a “safe and disciplined environment.”

“It’s about social breakdown, and we have to do our best to fight back because it really threatens our civilization. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I really believe that,” he said. He added: “A laissez-faire, anything-goes approach or even anything that smacks of it will be an utter failure.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.