The first riders won’t come down the rails of Metro Transit’s Green Line extension until 2023, but Eden Prairie’s public safety divisions are already training for the new scenarios the light rail will provide.
This comes as Metro Transit leaders and state lawmakers are scrambling to address safety issues on existing tracks that have reached a tipping point this winter.
On Feb. 12, Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle, Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra and Metro Transit Police Chief Eddie Frizell held a news conference to discuss the safety concerns that have been widely covered after a deadly shooting on a Metro Transit bus on Feb. 6 and rising concerns about fare evasion and disruptive conduct on trains.
“What’s happening on transit reflects what’s happening in our neighborhoods and cities. Inappropriate and criminal behavior on the streets translates into bad behavior on our transit system,” Zelle said, according to a news release from Metro Transit. “The issues are bigger than transit, and they deserve the attention of us all.”
Some measures Metro Transit will take include buying and installing new cameras with live video feeds, increasing staff for the “text for safety” program, and adding more plainclothes Metro Transit Police officers. The Met Council also asked the state Legislature to help combat fare evasion with administrative citations and to establish a transit ambassador program.
The topic of rider safety on Metro Transit has “come to a head” this winter, according to state Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee. He has sponsored a bill that would establish an ambassador program, called Transit Riders Investment Program (TRIP). If passed into law, it would add TRIP personnel trained in deescalation who could check passengers’ fares, give citations for fare evasion and conduct violations.
TRIP is based on similar programs in the San Francisco Bay Area and Minneapolis’ Downtown Improvement District ambassadors, he said, but there are only a few examples of similar programs in the U.S., and Minnesota would be “on the front end of these programs being deployed.”
The six-month pilot would hire 35 people, the Metro Transit news release says, and if continued, 90 full-time employees would eventually monitor the trains in addition to Metro Transit Police.
“They’re there to help and augment what the police department is doing,” Tabke told Eden Prairie News. Behavior that requires something more than “a stern look or a hug” would be relegated to police, he explained.
Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, who represents a swath of cities in western Hennepin County, including a portion of the Lake Minnetonka area, told the paper about a series of bills that House Republicans introduced in mid-February, including one that would have an independent assessor conduct a safety review of the Metro Transit system by Feb. 15, 2021. The review would investigate the roots of recent criminal activity, reduce fare evasion and conduct violations; and suggest options to reduce those behaviors.
The money lost from fare evasions every year could be funding more cameras and police officers on the transit system, Hertaus said. He’s skeptical as to how TRIP personnel would help in some of the situations that have been in the local news cycle.
“I would feel better as a patron knowing that person isn’t just an ambassador,” Hertaus said. “If somebody’s got a gun or a knife, then I don’t see how an ambassador is going to help.”
Metro Transit communications and outreach manager Sam O’Connell echoed Zelle’s sentiment that the increased disturbances on public transit are signs that the light rail, now 16 years old, has become a part of the community fabric. Addressing these problems will take a multi-pronged approach, she added.
“Part of this is just a maturation of the system,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s ever a silver bullet that will reduce all of this altogether.”
Far from the halls of the state Capitol, Southwest LRT extension project director Jim Alexander and Eden Prairie leaders are already laying the groundwork to create a cohesive response network to any issues that arise on the future train tracks. Alexander also worked on the Green Line corridor through Minneapolis and understands the importance of working ahead.
“We did a lot of groundwork early on,” he told Eden Prairie News. While behind-the-scenes training and networking with local police forces began years in advance, Minneapolis’s public-facing safety campaign began in earnest around a year before the stations opened. The process will look much the same for Eden Prairie, he said.
That means everything from visiting schools and senior centers to show residents how to safely navigate around trains where they intersect with streets, to teaching new riders how to buy a ticket and avoid accidental fare evasion.
Eden Prairie police and fire services have already had several kickoff meetings with Metro Transit Police, said Eden Prairie’s Police Chief Greg Weber and Fire Chief Scott Gerber. While Eden Prairie’s police officers will supplement Metro Transit Police’s work, the city’s fire department is the main stakeholder in emergency medical responses.
“It’s unique to transit policing in that it goes through each and every community multiple times a day,” Weber said of the light rail. “I think LRT is different, and so it brings questions.”
Gerber is already considering the unique challenges, or opportunities, provided by the light rail: A 60-foot tunnel under Highway 62 and the rail’s elevated platforms are new territories for Eden Prairie’s firefighters and medical teams.
Training from the Met Council will help Gerber and the rest of the city’s firefighters learn how to ventilate smoke from a tunnel and how to access a train that may be stopped between platforms on the elevated section, among other new situations the light rail may present.
“It’s an exciting time in some ways,” Gerber reflected. “This is going to be new. How do we prepare?”
While the recent shooting and proposed bills are contributing to a flurry of debate about how to ensure train rides are safe and comfortable, Weber’s years of experience with Eden Prairie’s police officers grants him a degree of confidence and calm. The new development around the light rail will bring more people to Eden Prairie, which means more calls for service, he said, but the city’s police officers and staff can handle it.
“They rise to the occasion and they take care of issues,” Weber said.