A Defense of Metro Transit’s Superb Owl Transit Plan

A few weeks ago, we learned (many of us via Twitter, and more on that later) about Metro Transit’s plans for transit access the day of the “Big Game.” We learned (via the NFL’s web page and Metro Transit’s web page) that the plan was to restrict gameday transit traffic on all of the Blue Line and most of the Green Line to folks who had tickets to the game and regular transit users would be relegated to buses. The gameday transit users would pay a $30 fee for an all-day pass and would be remotely screened (at either the Mall of America or Stadium Village depending on which line is used) so that once they off-board, they presumably are able to enter the stadium without being subject to further security scans. We also subsequently learned that the station adjacent to the stadium will be closed two days prior to the event, due to an increased security perimeter, but my understanding is that for the day of the game, the station will be available.

The reaction to this news on social media was swift and predictable: this was an unconscionable plan by Metro Transit, one that would create two classes of transit systems on that day, one for the well-heeled who can afford to drop thousands of dollars to see a football game and another for the rest of us who rely on trains and buses to get to and from work.

My first reaction to the news was more cautious. That could be because I am a huge fan of Metro Transit, or it could be because I have several relatives in law enforcement and may have an enhanced appreciation for the enormity of the planning needed to ensure an event like this is kept secure. It did seem like this was unduly harsh on regular transit users and that it unnecessarily favored folks who would be attending the game and who would probably prefer rolling up to the game in a limo or maybe floating on their pile of money to arrive.

I also completely agree with any criticisms about how the plan was initially communicated. We shouldn’t be learning about a plan this significant by finding a link to a poorly-explained policy. Metro Transit should have led with the well-detailed communication they sent later in the day in (presumably in response to the social media uproar).

I also wanted to learn more about why Metro Transit had settled on this gameday transit plan. Were there other players dictating or attempting to dictate how transit would work? How long had they been planning this and what was the negotiation like?

To that end, I sat down with Jon Commers, District 14 Council Member on the Metropolitan Council. Jon shared the planning and other parties that were involved in the gameday transit plan. He said the other stakeholders included state and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, Minnesota State Patrol and Department of Public Safety, Minneapolis Public Works, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington police departments, Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee, and the NFL.

The event itself, of course, is a top-tier security event, more so than any other event that has been held within the metro area within the last 30 or so years. Granted, we have recently hosted the Ryder Cup, which must have been a huge security undertaking, but that event took place over several days and didn’t have to manage any rail or bus traffic coming within a certain perimeter of a critical mass of people. And the last time we hosted the “big game,” we didn’t have train tracks running next to the stadium.

Jon referenced all the recent transition around the stadium of surface parking to better land uses, and noted that in most years this event is held at a stadium that is not so well connected to transit (and most NFL stadiums are ringed by significant surface parking). He noted that the bid for hosting this year’s event focused on our high level of transit accessibility.

Despite the bid touting the transit accessibility of our venue, the NFL’s first offer in terms of gameday transit use in an around the stadium was a 96-hour moratorium on transit use within a certain perimeter of the stadium. (Note: that we learned this later on the day this announcement was rolled out underscores how lacking the initial communication was.)

This is obviously very troubling, but understandable on some level. It seems clear that the NFL is not used to having to deal with the myriad security threats posed by having a well-used train running right next to a venue like this, and faced with that situation, I suppose the option that poses the least risk is to shut that train line down. But that would completely undermine the accessibility of the stadium in an event when it really should be an opportunity to showcase that accessibility.

Jon also answered my question about how Metro Transit was paying for the enhanced service on gameday. The cost of additional trains, etc., is covered by the $30 gameday passes as well as some advertising revenue, not taxpayers. And Metro Transit has now offered that non-gameday riders will be able to ride buses for free. I’m not sure if this offer was in response to the initial uproar, but it seems like a good way to re-assure regular riders that they’ve not been forgotten.

As for the security concerns, it strikes me as completely legitimate that any gameday train-rider should be screened. Aside from the larger question of whether all the security is appropriate to deter/prevent a bomb or some other terrible thing from happening, however minimal the probability, there’s no way to convince any of the powers-that-be that this low probability should result in relaxed security. It’s somewhat naïve to expect there to be minimal disruption for an event like this, especially in this day and age.

There’s nothing wrong with being upset at the disruption this event will cause for people who aren’t planning to be part of it. Since I work downtown, I will probably be working from home that week, and, other than maybe testing out the later bar close times, I don’t plan to participate in any of the related events.

But to my mind, placing blame for this disruption at the feet of Metro Transit, given the NFL’s initial plans related to transit, is misguided. I am also sensitive to the fact that people do need to work on that Sunday, and many don’t have a car and are reliant on transit to get to and from work. For those people, riding a bus that doesn’t come within the stadium’s security perimeter is a reasonable accommodation (to borrow A.D.A. lingo) to ensure that security concerns are met while still getting people to and from their jobs. The logical thing to me would be for anyone who is not attending and who has the option to not work that day or work remotely that day, to stay far away from this event.  It’s going to be an absolute circus.

Jon and I share one criticism of the plan, and that’s how it was communicated. He noted that the rollout was a result of a planned NFL event on a Monday morning, where the transit plan was an ancillary part of a larger announcement. The transit plan should have had a separate announcement, making clear why the disruptions are necessary, what the negotiation was with the NFL and other parties to at least maintain service throughout the event, and emphasizing that no taxpayer funds were being used to serve gameday fans.