20 Mar 19
Acknowledging that there’s already a sizable gap in his budget, Metro Transit’s new general manager is touting a series of new initiatives to improve the “rider experience” on trains and buses — from focused enforcement to more daytime cleaning to an “anti-harassment” campaign promoting random acts of kindness.
Under its new police chief, Metro Transit has already stepped up fare checks — since January requiring even administrative officers to go out on patrol, and street officers to spend less time in their cars.
Metro Transit general manager Wes Kooistra
Since the beginning of the year, citations have quadrupled on the Green Line, and arrests have jumped 250 percent, Metro Transit general manager Wes Kooistra said Tuesday.
Kooistra said he wants that enhanced enforcement to continue, focusing on areas with high infraction rates such as the Green Line from the state Capitol to the University of Minnesota, and the Payne Avenue bus route to Maplewood Mall.
It’s one of a smorgasbord of improvements Kooistra says he’s willing to dip into his organization’s reserves to pay for — and is hoping state lawmakers will in time address the shortfall.
Kooistra, who has been in his position for six weeks, complained that his organization was too reliant on one-time appropriations, and touted Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed 1/8-cent metro area sales tax increase that would go toward the area’s bus system.
When asked about the possibility that the money request might create brinksmanship with the state Legislature, as it often has in the past, Kooistra said, “Every biannual, it’s an act of faith no matter where you are. … We have to show the need, and the Legislature has to respond to that need.”
A LOOK AT THE AGENCY’S BUDGET
Metro Transit’s 2018 budget allowed for $472 million in expenses and included $464 million in revenue – equating to an $8 million deficit that would be drawn from Metro Transit’s “rainy day” reserve.
The new initiatives would add an additional $1.5 million to $2 million in expenses to that gap.
With a reserve of about $55 million, transit officials say they will run out of savings sometime in 2024.
But Kooistra maintained that his organization has held off on spending what it needed to for years. He cited one statistic relating to maintenance: There were quadruple the number of rail breaks this winter, compared with a typical year. Yes, it was a tough winter, but his agency should be able to deal with tough winters, he said.
WHAT ABOUT SERVICE AND RIDER EXPERIENCE?
Kooistra’s initiative also seeks to double the staff – from three to six – working at the organization’s “transit control center,” which responds to texts from travelers about observed infractions and puts out rider alerts.
“Uh oh, we got a smoker,” said Cain Brewer, the single staff member on his shift at the call center Tuesday, patching a customer’s report to police. “This is easily the most common problem, especially this time of year.”
Since the text-based assistance program launched in 2017, daily calls have increased from six to an average of 26 in February, though at times can reach 50, Brewer said.
“Right now, we just don’t have a lot of time to explain a lot of stuff (to customers),” Brewer said.
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To offer a carrot rather than a stick, Kooistra’s “anti-harassment” campaign would allow officers and drivers who witness acts of “respect, kindness and inclusion” to reward them. The campaign — which appears to be in its planning stages — could include events and presentations, prompted by drivers or officers handing appreciation cards to those they see acting kindly.
IMPROVEMENTS TO APPS, CLEANING, ACCESS
Kooistra’s initiative would also:
Increase the number of cleaners working during regular routes, as opposed to when trains are out of service, from one to four.
Upgrade Metro Transit’s 10-year-old information system that puts out real-time route data to the organization’s apps, station signs and the customer call-in system.
Make Americans with Disabilities Act improvements at 15 transit centers.