Safety, Finances Top of Mind for Metro Transit’s New Leader
The Met Council has selected a new general manager of Metro Transit, an 11-year-employee named Lesley Kandaras. Kandaras, 43, replaces retiring Wes Kooistra, for whom she served as chief of staff before being appointed to the top spot last week.
She is the first woman to head the regional transit agency since its creation in 1967.
The seven-county transit service has a $530 million annual budget and is in the midst of a six-year, $2.57 billion capital improvement project that received a significant boost during the 2023 legislation session. The state transportation budget contained a new 0.75% sales tax in the seven-county region that will raise $766 million in the first two years, $973 million in the second two years. The Met Council will receive 83% of that for transit.
The new money will both solve an impending deficit and allow for a major system expansion, including extensions of the Green Line and Blue Line light rail routes and new bus rapid transit lines. They include the E Line from Southdale to the University of Minnesota via Uptown, Hennepin Avenue and University Avenue, the B Line along Lake Street to downtown St. Paul and the Purple Line from downtown St. Paul to White Bear Lake.
The challenges facing the new general manager include ridership that is recovering but is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, increased crime and disruption on transit and a shortage of both transit operators and transit police.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: How did you get to Minnesota from Rapid City, South Dakota?
Lesley Kandaras: I initially came to the Twin Cities to go to college at Hamline University. And then after graduating from there, I was gone for several years. I went to graduate school in Chicago. I worked for a member of Congress, first in South Dakota, and then in D.C. And then in 2009 I moved back here and worked briefly for Sen. Klobuchar’s office, and then started at the council in 2012.
MP: Your first job at the council was a policy job?
LK: The title was Senior Project Coordinator, and it was in communications working closely with (director of government relations) Judd Shetnan. It was really kind of a miscellaneous portfolio of work ranging from supporting the chair and council members on their public presentations to managing projects within the organization. It was really an opportunity to learn the whole gamut of the council’s work.
MP: You’ve been with the agency for a little over a decade, but you’re not a transit lifer.
LK: No. I’ve ridden transit throughout most of my life, but 2019 was the first time I worked over here.
MP: You certainly come in with fresh eyes, but what are the downsides of not having been a transit person this whole time?
LK: First off, one of the reasons I love working here is I learn something new every day. Transit is a multifaceted organization, and certainly it provides me a lot of opportunity to go out and spend time in the garages with our maintenance folks, with our police department, to really see the agency through multiple perspectives. But my background is much more in that policy communications realm. My first introduction to transit when I worked at the Metropolitan Council was really helping to build the case for continued investment in transit. I learned a lot through that angle too. But I am still learning, and it is hopefully bringing a fresh perspective. That means I have a lot of opportunities to get to know this work better.
MP: Have you ever driven a bus, even around the yard?
LK: No, I haven’t.
MP: Do you have to be in the union?
LK: That’s a good question. I want to drive a bus. I mean, that’s kind of on my list of things I’d like to personally experience, but no, I haven’t yet.
MP: Many if not all transit agencies have had a tough three, four years. The pandemic, its aftermath, the murder of George Floyd. You have a police agency. Given those challenges, why’d you want this job?
LK: I’m actually really excited about this role precisely because we’re at a really pivotal time, certainly emerging from the pandemic and, here in the Twin Cities, the murder of George Floyd, the civil unrest that followed. It’s been a really tumultuous few years. I think right now we’re seeing ridership continue to grow, and we’re in the process of really trying to connect with our customers to learn how their needs and values — as it relates to transit — have changed. So, I think it’s a really interesting time to be in transit, to really chart out that future and really develop a vision for how we can best serve our region through transit. But also it’s a unique time given the Legislature’s investment in transit as well. We’re in a good position, better than many other transit agencies are in terms of now having a sustainable source of funding as our Covid federal relief dollars run out.
MP: When you say “interesting,” do you mean interesting, interesting. Or Minnesota Interesting?
LK: I would say for me, and even going back to when I started at the council, I feel that transit really has potential to improve people’s lives and strengthen communities. That really attracts me as an opportunity here to really look at transit, not only as a mode of transportation, but also as a way to really improve our communities. So that’s what I meant by interesting.
MP: You’re a transit user. What routes do you use?
LK: I use the 9 quite a bit to get to work. That’s the one closest to my house. I also walk to the Lake Street/Midtown Station quite a bit to use the light rail. I use the 21, I use the 94. My husband and I share a car, and that works because I take transit a lot. It’s not my only means of transportation, but it’s certainly a big part of it.
MP: Have you felt safe on vehicles and in stations?
LK: I have personally felt safe, but I don’t always feel comfortable. And I certainly have heard from customers who don’t feel safe, and I believe those experiences and know we need to do more to ensure all our customers feel safe. I think certainly addressing our public safety challenges is a very high priority.
MP: The agency had its own public safety plan prior to the Legislature acting. But the (Rep. Brad) Tabke program came in, starting June 1. I know we’re gonna get an update later this week. But can you give me some sense of how you think that has been going and where you are with it?
LK: For some background on me, part of my role was facilitating the creation of our safety and security action plan. And one of the principles behind that is it’s really an all-hands-on-deck effort here at Metro Transit. What I mean by that is, it’s not only about what our police are doing, it’s also about how we’re maintaining our facilities, how we’re operating our bus and rail system, how we’re communicating with customers to make sure they understand what our code of conduct is and what expectations are. So the safety and security action plan was really meant to be this document that captured the multitude of ways that we’re trying to improve conditions on our system, many of which have to do with: How do we increase presence on our system? I think the Tabke legislation, the Transit Rider Investment Program in particular, will be an additional tool as we try to expand our official presence on our system.
So part of what we’ll share (Wednesday) night (during a presentation to the Met Council) is, we’re in the process of working to set up the Transit Rider Investment Program that will hire non-sworn, non-police employees. They’ll be responsible for routine fare compliance now that we also have the administrative citations authority, which is another piece we’re actively setting up. In addition to fare compliance, they’re going to be interacting with customers providing transit information, connecting customers, who may be in need, to services. They’ll have the ability to contact our police department if they need additional assistance out there. So I think the legislation that passed was very much in line with the direction we were heading, but certainly creates a clear structure for where we’ll take that next.
MP: The Met Council is charged with updating the rider code of conduct. Has that happened yet?
LK: Metro Transit has long had a code of conduct and what the Omnibus transportation bill did this year is it now requires us to have one and has some language in there about how we display it and so forth. Even before the omnibus passed, we had staff really taking a look, not just on what the code of conduct says, but how do we uphold it, and really trying to understand the different roles and responsibilities. So these aren’t just words on a sign, but we actually are setting positive standards for the use of the shared public space that is transit.
We had a survey to get some feedback from customers to get a sense of rules and standards they’re really interested in seeing. That’s a long way of saying, I don’t want the perception to be, we have no code of conduct. But we’re in the process of formalizing it, per the requirements of the legislation.
MP: There has been criticism from riders and legislators that Metro Transit and Metro Transit Police stood down to some degree during COVID and weren’t enforcing the codes that you have and the ordinances that you have. Is that a legitimate perception? And were there mistakes made during COVID that now you’re trying to undo?
LK: I’ll say two things about that. One, certainly in the immediate aftermath of the stay-at-home orders, we were quickly adjusting to that new reality. I think across all of our operations, including police, we were looking at ways to keep customers and employees safe. So that was a time we were actively telling people don’t ride transit unless you need it to get somewhere. We started rear door boarding until we were at a point we could have protection around all of our drivers. I don’t know the ins and outs of how police protocol changed during that time, but I am sure they were grappling with how to minimize contact between employees and customers. But another piece that I think is what’s making this more visible is our police workforce has really declined in recent years.
So we’re down to about 107 officers of the 171 full-time positions we have in our budget. Our police department is not alone in losing police officers in recent years and is actively competing with many other law enforcement departments to build back the department. But I think what people are seeing is we are a smaller police force at the time. We continue to grow our proof of payment system so I think that is becoming visible to people. And I’ll just add, that’s why part of the focus of the safety and Security Action plan is increasing official presence. That isn’t only about officers. It’s contracting with community-based organizations. For instance, we have an organization called a Mother’s Love that goes out and interacts with customers. We’ve started supplemental security at some of our most highly used transit facilities, again, to provide more presence there. So even though we don’t have our police workforce numbers where we need them to be, we’re actively looking at ways to have other presence and certainly that Transit Rider Investment Program personnel. Hopefully once we get that up and running, there’ll be another set of eyes and ears.
MP: The signs say I have to have a paid fare to be on the platform. Is that enforced?
LK: The police department right now is out educating customers, checking fares. Whether they’re doing it on trains or platforms, that’s a good question for the chief. But that’s part of where the Transit Rider Investment Program comes in. I think it will really be a good innovation for us because as we bring in these new non-sworn personnel who are going to be doing fare compliance, it’ll provide us more opportunities to figure out what’s the most strategic way to do that.
MP: Are you seeing results from riders resulting from the increased presence that you are referencing?
LK: I would say where we have supplemental security, we are receiving some positive feedback. So right now at Lake Street-Midtown Blue Line Station we have supplemental security there and we are receiving feedback both from customers and employees that that’s really helped make some improvements there. I think the lesson we’re learning is when you have consistent presence, it does make a difference. The challenge then becomes having the workforce to do that. Right now it’s Franklin and Lake Street Midtown. We’re looking to expand it, potentially in the next week or so, to the 35W Lake Street Station as well as Brooklyn Center Transit Center.
MP: There is a new fare-free pilot program, is there not?
LK: Part of the transportation omnibus was a fare-free pilot for two regular route bus routes. The council selected Route 62 and Route 32. That started on July 1st, and that’ll last 18 months. And we report back to the Legislature about what we’ve learned from that.
MP: From what you know from other agencies that have tried it, what’s the result? What do you get out of it?
LK: The hope is it will entice more people to take more trips on transit. So we’ll be watching closely what it does to ridership on those routes. I think there’s a potential for there to be a benefit of time savings. If you don’t have people paying when they get on board, we’re going to be looking to see if that improves travel times on those routes. Also it’s reducing a potential point of conflict between operators and passengers who don’t want to pay. I think some other agencies have seen it as a way to just avoid that interaction around fares generally.
MP: Is there also the potential … of having those routes be routes that people just ride all day? Because they don’t have to pay, it sort of becomes a rolling shelter for those routes.
LK: I think the result on passenger behavior will be another piece of what we’re gonna want to look at and how can we ensure that it remains a source of transportation for people.
MP: You can’t rebuild ridership if there are no trains and buses running. And you can’t run trains and buses if you don’t have operators. So what are you doing to try to tackle that problem?
LK: A big part of what I want to focus on is how we ensure that Metro Transit becomes an employer of choice for people in our region. Transit is driven by people — literally. In order to provide service, we need to have a workforce that can provide it. So some of what we’ve already been working on is looking not just at our recruitment strategies, we’ve been doing some innovative things such as going out into community, really trying to have our current workforce build relationships with others and make it a place where people can see that, you know, great people work here, come join us. But some of it, too, is on the retention front and making sure that we’re providing the training, the mentorship and support for our workforce. So they want to stay here and they want to grow their career here.
Workforce is how we can build back service. The fast frequent all day service, that’s really going to be key to rebuilding ridership. I think that’s really where a lot of the focus is right now. We want to be providing more service than we can because of our workforce levels. In our budget we have room to grow the workforce. It’s a matter of recruiting and retaining the people we need to provide that service.
MP: You are at 15-minute headways (on light rail) right now. When can you get back to 10 minutes?
LK: It’ll depend on the operator hiring. One change that happened last year is we came to an agreement with the (Amalgamated Transit Union) to allow us to hire (light rail) train operators directly. Previously, you had to be a bus operator before you could be a train operator. So we’re still in the somewhat early stages of hiring train operators directly. But we’re hopeful that will help us get our train operator workforce up. I think the idea is we think there might be people out there who’d be interested in operating a light rail vehicle and might not view themselves as wanting to be a bus operator. It’s one more tool. I would say it’s not meant to be the panacea, but we’re trying any new idea we can to see what we can do to continue to build the workforce.
MP: You had a great session, both some direct appropriations and then the transit sales tax, a more-than-decent source of money for both operations and expansion. What does that open up, do you think, for the agency over the six year plan and beyond that?
LK: We’re going from a time where we were really focused on making the case for transit investment to now needing to shift and show people the return on that investment. And so part of what we’re doing this summer is really analyzing what that new revenue means. I think in addition to it being new revenue, it’s also addressing longstanding needs we have. So this gets a little complicated, but the COVID federal relief was one-time money. So that pushed out the time we were going to hit our fiscal cliff. But starting in the next biennium, 2026-27, we projected that we were going to hit our deficit. So the sales tax is coming at a great time to really give us some stability and allow us to plan ahead knowing we have ongoing sources of funding.
That’s a piece of it, just addressing this long standing fiscal cliff concern. Another piece of what the transportation bill did is it shifted the counties’ obligation for operations for rail to the sales tax. The sales tax will be picking that up. We are responsible for the capital maintenance of those guideways. But all of that aside, it’s clearly an opportunity to be really bold about what transit system does our region want. And I think part of what we’re looking at doing is ensuring we’re really engaging our customers, engaging the community and listening to where there are opportunities to invest and really provide that return on investment given the significant new source of revenue.