Open drug use, beatings, scared airport passengers; riders say public transit going off the rails

Bill would start ‘ambassador program’ to deal with problem passengers

By: - March 2, 2023 1:39 pm

A person sticks their arm inside a Metro Transit light rail train to keep its doors open at Capitol/Rice Street Station. February 21, 2023-Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA (H. Jiahong Pan/Minnesota Reformer)

Aiden Kilgannon, who has Down syndrome, told a panel of lawmakers Thursday he stopped taking the Metro Transit light rail after a woman wearing only a towel smacked him in the head with a shoe and spit in his face on Feb. 3. He had ridden rail since 2014 to get to his job at a café. Not anymore.

“I need it to be safe,” he told a House transportation committee Thursday during a hearing on a bill, HF2045, sponsored by Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, which would launch a three-month, intensive intervention program to “reset” the culture of the light rail. Then a project manager would set up social service intervention teams that would work with police officers to start working the trains by April. The bill defines offenses that warrant ejections from transit, and those that would draw a warning.

Another planned bill would put social workers — or what are now being dubbed “ambassadors” — on the trains to enforce rules and assist homeless people or people with mental health or addiction issues.

“We’ve been struggling in the metro for quite some time with transit,” Tabke said, noting the tragic beating of a transgender woman at the Minneapolis Lake Street light-rail station on Monday. She was hospitalized and is in critical condition.

Mitch Kilian, vice president of governmental affairs for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said the problems extend to the airport, where the light rail connects two terminals. Kilian said in the past six months, he’s continuously fielded complaints about the light rail from flight attendants, concessionaires, airport workers, pilots and passengers.

It’s affecting tourism, he said. International passengers like to take the light rail to the Mall of America during layovers, but often won’t take it back after having bad experiences, he said. Thousands of people fly to conventions in Minneapolis, and most take the light rail downtown but often won’t take it back.

The airport now has to lock the parking garage bathrooms at night because people are using them as shelters; flight displays are routinely vandalized.

“The open drug use is just incredible,” Kilian said. “Even with cameras, in the open and it’s not marijuana use — it’s crack and things like that. Open pipe smoking right in the open next to our passengers is a very regular occurrence for us.”

Metropolitan Council Chair Charles Zelle, who was reappointed by Gov. Tim Walz to the position he’s held since 2019, told lawmakers that problems on the light rail rose to unacceptable levels during the pandemic. People have made bonfires inside bus shelters in downtown Minneapolis, he said.

The Met Council struggles to hire “community service officers” (students becoming police officers) to monitor the trains — it has 14 out of 70 budgeted — and police officers — it has 108 out of 171 budgeted — and is taking steps to contract with private security.

Although a significant policing presence helps with issues, “We can’t police our way to safety,” Zelle said.

Rep. John Petersburg, R- Waseca, pressed Zelle about why it was “allowed to escalate to this level” and said the Met Council has failed, so the Legislature is “trying to fix it for you.”  

Zelle took responsibility but said the problems go beyond transit.

“We’re the downstream symptom of what’s happening in society,” he said

David Peterson, a Minneapolis man who takes the Green Line to work in St. Paul, said drug use is “out of control,” with fentanyl wrappers littering trains. Some people — including high school students — have no other options other than public transit, he noted. A rapid response that goes beyond law enforcement is needed, he said.

Grace Bassekle, a community organizer and student, said the transit system needs an ambassador program that treats people with compassion.

“Criminal penalties aren’t the solution to transit issues, and behavioral issues on trains are a reflection of our unsupported social system,” Bassekle said.

Minnesota Youth Collective organizer Sean Lim* said he’s witnessed Met Transit officers mistreat people of color and homeless people and said people shouldn’t be criminally punished for littering or smoking. The cost of the program could be better used to address the systemic issues spilling onto trains, Lim said.

Jenny Huang, a math teacher who lives in St. Paul but teaches in Edina, began taking the light rail and two buses to get to work — an over two-hour journey one way — when her 23-year-old “beater car” broke down, and she couldn’t afford a new one.

“There have been times on the bus where I have feared for my safety. I’ve been verbally harassed, I’ve witnessed physical altercations,” Huang said. “But despite what I’ve experienced, I still believe in the expansion and betterment of public transit in Minnesota.”

Abdinasir Nourkadi, communications and outreach director for Move Minnesota, said he uses the transit for everything, even though it sometimes takes three hours to get to work, and he doesn’t fear for his safety but still pays for his mother to take Uber rather than the transit.

“I do not know what to say to people that feel unsafe. The women, those with disabilities, the elderly — when they tell me about their fear, what can I say? Nothing,” Nourkadi said. 

Ryan Timlin, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, said there aren’t enough workers to keep the system clean while dealing with societal problems.

“If you go to the Lake Street station and look down the elevator shaft, you’ll see it’s full of needles,” he said.

Some of the workers who clean the stations have had to defend their very lives, he said. Bus operators are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and being pressured to go back to work before they’re ready, he said. Calls to Met Transit about open drug markets go unheeded.

“This is a massive problem,” Timlin said.

Tabke — who’s been a “reluctant rider” of the light rail daily since his pickup was mangled in a crash on the first day of the legislative session — said the transit system is a magnet for societal problems. It’s a refuge for people who are homeless, struggling with addiction or in crisis.

“This isn’t just a transit issue, it’s a societal issue that we need to continue to work on,” he said.

The committee chair Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said more testimony may be taken next week before the bill is voted on.

*Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Lim’s organization. 

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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.