Metro Transit will engage a private security company to provide the new personnel to conduct light rail and bus rapid transit fare checks, enforce a new code of conduct and help riders navigate the system.
The contract workers are expected to be on platforms, buses and trains during the first quarter of 2024 as Transit Rider Investment Program (TRIP) employees.
Using private contractors rather than Metro Transit staff is a change in plans from what had been envisioned since the Legislature approved a transit safety plan in May. Then, and in the months since, the Met Council had expected to hire employees under its contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union. But negotiations with the union on the overall contract, which includes how to integrate TRIP workers into the bargaining unit, have not been completed.
When it meets Wednesday, its last meeting of the year, the Met Council is expected to approve a contract amendment with Allied Universal to pay it to take on TRIP duties in addition to the private security work it’s already been doing at transit stations since April. The same contract change will extend the private security agreement through April of 2025.
The council also is expected to approve a new code of conduct that will set standards for rider behavior and set up sanctions for those who violate the code. The code will be posted on vehicles and stations in February, when it will be enforced.
Lesley Kandaras, the general manager of Metro Transit, told a legislative committee Tuesday that the private contract will get TRIP workers in the field sooner. Since Dec. 4, a dozen community service officers — non-sworn police, some of whom will transition into police training — have been enforcing fares. In the first week, nearly 2,000 fares were checked and 193 citations were written, Metro Transit reported this week.
TRIP workers are expected to take on those duties once they are deployed.
“That will allow us to roll it out more quickly,” she said afterward. But the intent of both Metro Transit and the union is to keep negotiating over those jobs in order to bring them under the contract with staffers, not contractors. “We’re pursuing this because we feel a great deal of urgency around having TRIP agents on the system.”
David Stiggers, the president-elect of ATU 1005, said the union is not contesting the use of private contractors for now.
“It wouldn’t be in our best interest to fight what are needed security improvements,” Stigger said. “But we’d definitely like to get it settled so our members can do that work.” ATU 1005 has about 2,000 members, including bus and train operators, mechanics, track maintenance workers and call center employees.
TRIP personnel are a key component in the plan approved in May but in the works since 2019. Rather than have Metro Transit police write misdemeanor citations carrying heavy fines that were rarely prosecuted, the civilian personnel (at one point, they were referred to as ambassadors) will issue administrative fines akin to parking tickets. Fines will start at $35 but increase with repeat offenses that can lead to banishment from transit. An independent administrative hearing process, separate from the courts, will rule on appeals.
Starting last June, Metro Transit has worked with county social service workers and nonprofits to conduct interventions to direct people toward housing and substance abuse treatment. Stepped-up law enforcement followed that social service work, but the agency has also contracted with nonprofit groups to help reduce violence on the system through intervention strategies.
Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle told the House Transportation Committee Tuesday that he thinks the effort is working.
“The No. 1 goal for all of us at Metro Transit and the Met Council is the customer experience, the safe, reliable experience for both our customers and our employees,” Zelle said. “We’re on a pathway to reach those goals. … We’re not where we need to be, but we are definitely making headway toward creating this welcoming environment.”
Transit Police Chief Ernest Morales III told the committee he is seeing declines in calls for service to the agency and in reported crimes. But like most police agencies, the Metro Transit Police Department is still struggling to fill positions. It has money to hire 171 officers but only has 109 on staff. It has a budget for 70 community service officers but only has 12.
One response is what is called the Pathway Program that recruits people to get college credit at no cost to help feed the CSO program.
The contract with Allied Universal for private security officers was a method to get more patrols at the most-troubled stations, including Lake Street Midtown, Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn Center Transit Center, I-35W and Lake Street Station, the Chicago-Lake Transit Center and the Uptown Transit Station. The transit agency hopes to add private patrols to the Central Station in St. Paul early next year.
“Let’s be clear about this: We aren’t going to arrest our way out of this situation,” Morales said, adding that some people need help getting housing, treatment and social services. “However, there are repeat offenders, and sometimes our only alternative is to arrest, to give them a time out.”
Some testifiers Tuesday were concerned that the new fare enforcement will harm people who ride transit because they have nowhere else to go, something that will increase as the weather gets colder.
While the new code does not include a ban on sleeping on vehicles, Daylon Prochaska, the transit justice coordinator for MN350, said aggressive fare enforcement could also harm people facing homelessness who can’t afford fares.
“As we enter winter, unsheltered residents need places to escape intolerable cold,” he said. “The trains and buses are some people’s last resort.”
Prochaska suggested exemptions for unsheltered people via the use of free fare cards that could be distributed by TRIP agents and the nonprofit workers who work with riders who need services.
“Provide these special cards to outreach workers, community-based organizations and other organizers who engage with unhoused residents regularly to minimize other harmful interactions,” he proposed.
Lisa Clemons is the chief executive officer of A Mother’s Love, a community organization that has been contracted by Metro Transit to reduce gun violence and domestic abuse. The group uses what it calls “Boots On The Ground outreach” in communities most affected by violence and disparities.
Clemons testified behind a thick binder holding the interaction reports the group’s workers have done in and around transit. But she said the work starts “off the bus” to reduce the chances that violence will be the response to confrontations.
“If you address the issues in and around the shelters, you can deescalate a lot of it before they even get on the bus,” Clemons said. “We understand this initiative, but we also understand that there are a lot of people in and around Metro Transit who are asking us for help, and we would like to continue giving them that help.”
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost.
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