MSA continues push to expand free light rail stops

Along with extending the University’s Zone Pass, another bill aims to improve safety on the light rail after an increase in violent crime last year.

The light rail as seen on Thursday, June 20 2019 in Minneapolis.

Tony Saunders

The light rail as seen on Thursday, June 20 2019 in Minneapolis.

by Mohamed Ibrahim

As part of a larger push to improve transit in the Twin Cities, University of Minnesota students are aiming to expand free light rail privileges around campus. 

The Minnesota Student Association is working with lawmakers on a bill introduced this month to improve access to more food options near campus by adding a stop to the University’s free light rail service for students. Another bill, authored by Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, looks to add public safety resources on the light rail system following an increase in crime last year.

Student access and food insecurity

The University currently provides a Campus Zone Pass, which allows students, faculty and staff to use the light rail between the West Bank and Stadium Village stops on campus without paying a fare.

Legislation backed by MSA and authored by House transportation committee Chair Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, would extend the pass to include the light rail stop in Prospect Park. MSA backed similar legislation last session, but it did not make it to a final vote.

Sam Parmekar, MSA’s government and legislative affairs state coordinator, said adding the stop would give students access to the Fresh Thyme grocery store in Prospect Park, providing students another option for healthier food. Students who live near the stop could more easily use the light rail to get to campus, he said.

The bill would also appropriate funds to the University Board of Regents for a study examining the lack of healthy food for students on and around campus, which Parmekar said is “situated in a food desert.” The study would determine solutions to expand options and ultimately make recommendations to the University and the Legislature to combat the issue.

“It’ll make a big difference in students’ lives because they’ll have better access to healthy food choices,” Hornstein said. “These are important choices — people should really have choices when it comes to their food.”

Hornstein said the bill will receive a hearing in the coming weeks.

Light rail safety and rider experience

A bill authored by House transportation committee Vice Chair Rep. Brad Tabke would allocate funding for the six-month Transit Rider Experience Program, which would put unarmed “transit ambassadors” on the light rail to assist riders, check fares and administer citations.

A response to increased violent crime on buses and trains, Tabke said the move would free up Metro Transit Police officers to focus on responding to incidents instead of fare evasion. 

“It’s been proven time and time again that by having more uniformed personnel, whether those are police officers or just anyone in authority around, people are much more likely to observe and obey all the laws and rules by having more eyes and ears,” Tabke said.

The bill would also lessen the fare evasion penalty from a gross misdemeanor to a petty misdemeanor and decrease the current $180 fine to $35 for first-time offenders and up to $100 for habitual fare-evaders.

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Council announced several measures to address crime on public transit, including boosting Metro Transit Police hours and installing real-time video cameras in light rail cars. 

“There’s a lot of different things that are going on to help with the safety concerns out there,” Tabke said. “This is just one of those things, but we need legislative action in order to make this happen.”

Tabke’s bill was last heard by the House transportation committee Thursday, where it was referred to the public safety committee.