Honor system for fares may no longer be workable.

In the past year, Saint Louis’ MetroLink has developed a Secure Platform Plan for its 38 light-rail stations in response to the same concerns about crime, fear of crime and stagnant ridership now facing light-rail transit in the Twin Cities. New fencing and turnstiles will be installed at the Saint Louis stations. It’s a sad admission that the honor system doesn’t work when too many riders fail to honor it.

A Metro Transit light-rail train.

The Minnesota Legislature has in its 2023 transportation bills several provisions designed to address the same problem. The focus of the legislation is on the mitigation and remediation of perpetrators. I hope, but I’m not convinced, that this will be enough. As a 30-year advocate of rail transit, I’ve come to the difficult conclusion that the honor system of light-rail fare collection, in force since the Blue Line opened, may just not be workable in our post-Trump, post-pandemic atmosphere of sabotaged social norms.

Bad behavior has eroded ridership

When the Blue Line and later the Green Line opened, I and most of those I hang out with were excited and confident about light rail. Finally, after decades of doing nothing, the Twin Cities were getting our first contemporary regional transit investments. We couldn’t wait to see them begin to change the paradigm of endless highway expansion and urban sprawl. Finally, transit-oriented development would, over time, create many more walkable neighborhoods and lifestyles.

Billions in new housing investment has come on line near light-rail stations. Smaller, urban-style grocery stores are opening after decades of inappropriately suburban-style big boxes surrounded by dangerous, alienating parking lagoons. With light rail and bus rapid transit such as the A-Line, many more and diverse demographics—including young adults and seniors—are seeing transit as an attractive alternative to driving. Until, that is, we encounter, either directly or by word of mouth, the ugly, sometimes dangerous behavior that often seems to predominate on the Green and Blue lines.

We need to invest in light rail’s success

To be fair, declining norms have also led to a great increase in carjackings, car theft and catalytic converter theft, spreading anxiety and fear among motorists. But in the contest for public patronage, light-rail transit starts with huge handicaps. Our economy spends tens of billions of dollars in advertising every year convincing people to drive and next to nothing convincing them to try transit. Few realize that they pay for that in the price of every car or auto-related product they buy. Light rail, by contrast, parades every aspect of its true cost in front of our noses, especially when poor decision-making creates questionable designs and cost overruns such as with Southwest Light Rail Transit.

We’re not going to shut down light rail or halt the Green Line Extension in the southwest corridor. What we must do is make these large investments work. Saint Louis may have found a way out of the crisis with its Secure Platform Plan. It’s certainly worth watching. If the mitigation approach in current legislation fails in Minnesota, we need to recognize that regional transit must offer what it was meant to offer— fast, convenient, safe and attractive mobility for those no longer willing or able to drive everywhere for everything.

— Mathews Hollinshead

Mathews Hollinshead serves as the transit modal representative on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. He lives in Highland Park.


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