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2021
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Provision to decriminalize Metro Transit fare violations fails to make it into transportation bill at Legislature

Remember that apparent deal between Minnesota Senate Republicans and House DFLers to decriminalize nonpayment of fares on Metro Transit buses and trains?

Never mind. 

After two years of trying — even after a leading opponent changed his mind on shifting fare violations from criminal sanctions to something akin to a parking ticket — the provision did not make it into the Minnesota Legislature’s omnibus transportation bill posted this week. That means nonpayment of fares will continue to be penalized with a $180 misdemeanor fine, a disconnect between punishment and violation that has led tickets to be infrequently issued — and rarely prosecuted. Also out of the final bill: allowing fare enforcement to be handled by a new corps of non-police transit personnel similar to Minneapolis’ Downtown Improvement District staff, an approach that has used in other cities to de-escalate confrontations.

House Transportation Committee Chair Frank Hornstein said the issue was discussed during negotiations, “but in the end it was one of the items left and the Senate didn’t agree.”

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Both the civil citations and the transit ambassadors had been priorities of the Metropolitan Council and House DFLers. Republicans, however, expressed worry that it could make transit less safe at a time when crime was a concern of riders and law enforcement.

Still, a breakthrough seemed possible earlier this session when Senate Transportation Committee Chair Scott Newman, an influential Republican from Hutchinson, appeared to change his position. “Last year, when this came forward, I have to admit I was rather intransigent in my belief that we had to maintain the criminal penalties,” Newman said during a meeting of his committee March 1. “I have changed my mind on that.” 

State Sen. Scott Newman

Newman said he would work with Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis, the DFL’s transportation lead, to resolve final differences. Said Newman: “Just wish us luck.” 

It wasn’t enough, even though similar language had already received strong bipartisan support in the House Transportation Committee. Newman was not available to comment Monday, but Hornstein said he was told that the bulk of the Senate GOP caucus wasn’t in agreement on the issue. “We’ll continue to fight for our position because it makes no sense that fare evasion on transit is a misdemeanor punishable by a $180 fine when someone pays $30 for a parking ticket,” said Hornstein, a Minneapolis DFLer.

Between the start of the 2019 session and this year, the GOP position had gone from “heck no” to “maybe yes.” The difference between then and now is that legislators from both parties worked over the summer and fall to learn about the issue — and seek some common responses to it. Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, had led the interim work on the issue with former Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee. Metro Transit also used the interim between sessions to implement changes in response to GOP complaints about crime and safety on  the system. 

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Fare evasion is mostly a problem on