ST. PAUL — It is not uncommon to find drunks, drug users and vagrants sleeping or using Twin Cities light rail trains as a toilet — and not just after hours.
That was what two train operators told a group of lawmakers Wednesday, Feb. 5, saying they often fear for their safety and are disgusted by the behavior they see.
One morning, commuters boarded a train to see a man passed out with his penis in his hand, said Honey Darling, a light rail operator.
“This is ‘Welcome to the Twin Cities’,” Darling said. She added that riders are often greeted by “dirty needles and half-naked people” when they board the train. Darling said the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit have been too slow to react to a string of complaints from workers.
“I’m embarrassed and I’m sorry, but the Met Council should be ashamed," she said.
Metro Transit operates two light rail lines in the metro, the Blue Line that connects downtown Minneapolis with the Mall of America and the Green Line that connects downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul. Both have seen their ridership grow since starting service, the Blue Line first in 2004 and the Green Line in 2014. On an average weekday, there are 42,500 rides taken on the Green Line alone.
Lawmakers show concern
Fellow light rail operator Jeff Ziegler, who moved from Ohio to Coon Rapids to work for Metro Transit, said some nights he worries he’ll end up in the hospital. “I cannot calm down due to the trauma I experience on the job,” he said.
Some lawmakers on the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government appeared shocked to hear of the conditions on the light rail trains. The fatal stabbing of a man in January on the Blue Line was mentioned a number of times.
“I’m very concerned about the safety of your workplace,” said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, who urged train operators to file complaints with the state Department of Labor.
When the Legislature convenes next week improving safety on transit is expected to be a top priority. But Democrats and Republicans have expressed very different ideas about how to go about it.
The DFL-controlled House is expected to debate a bill that would hire a new force of “transit ambassadors” who would be able to write citations for fare evasion and would work to make trains safer. The proposal also includes decriminalizing fare skipping, making it a petty misdemeanor.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House transportation committee, said lawmakers were committed to passing legislation to make transit safer.
“We need to make sure we have a very good and safe system,” he said.
Republicans have sought more police on trains and buses. They also want new criminal penalties for people who loiter at transit stops.
Transit operator aware
Judd Schetnan, Met Council public affairs director, said leaders were aware of the situation and working to improve it. He noted that initiatives the council and Metro Transit are considering will require long-term funding.
“This is very difficult for us to hear as well,” Schetnan said. “We take safety very seriously. Frankly, we need your help to achieve some of the things we are pursuing.”
State Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, urged lawmakers not to blame societal ills like homelessness and drug addiction on a transportation provider. She said the state also needs to address those problems.
The commission meeting almost didn’t happen. Minutes after it began Wednesday Democratic members moved to unseat the Republican chair, Rep. John Koznick of Lakeville.
Their motion was called out of order and “political” and after a recess, the meeting continued. At the end of the session Koznick resigned is chairmanship and DFL Rep. Sandra Masin, of Eagan, was picked to lead the commission.