The Metropolitan Council is a powerful body you probably have never heard of.
Established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967, it was originally tasked with running the region’s sewer system. It now runs the region’s transit and public housing systems in most of the Twin Cities, has veto authority over local communities’ land use decisions, and funds our regional parks and trails system.
The Met Council, as it is colloquially known, is led by 17 people appointed by the Governor representing different parts of the Twin Cities. Southwest Minneapolis is represented by John Pacheco, Jr., who also represents St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Crystal, and New Hope.
Pacheco was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz in February from a group of finalists, replacing Lynnea Atlas-Ingebretson who resigned in October 2021. Pacheco was previously appointed to the Met Council in the 1990s under Gov. Rudy Perpich. His term expires next January, the same time when Walz’s term expires.
In addition to serving on the Met Council’s transportation committee, which oversees Metro Transit, he also serves on the Green Line Extension Corridor Management Committee, the Blue Line Extension Corridor Management Committee as an alternate, and the Management, Investment Review, and Equity Advisory Committees.
In Pacheco’s first interview with the press since he was appointed, I learned that he grew up riding transit and got into public service because of his troubled youth. The interview is edited for clarity.
John Pacheco Jr.’s public service background
Growing up, his family relied heavily on public transit.
“I remember when my family had to go somewhere, it had to be on the bus,” Pacheco said. “Even cabs wouldn’t pick up seven kids,” said Pacheco.
When Pacheco was young, he was sent to the Hennepin County Home School for Boys many times, once staying for six months. After his release, Pacheco went to the Minneapolis Vocational High School and an alternative high school at Lake and Bloomington. He landed a job as a counselor at a halfway house for people between the ages of 18 and 30 who have been convicted of a felony. He ultimately worked and graduated from The City Inc. alternative high school.
From there, he served as the executive director of Centro Cultural Chicano, now the Centro Tyrone Guzman on Chicago Avenue, where he worked with six Latino organizations to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He then handled local government and community relations for what is now Xcel Energy and U.S. Bank. Today, he is a nonprofit consultant.
He currently serves as president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce and on the board of Golden Gloves of America, an amateur boxing organization.
Pacheco is one of seven children, a third-generation descendant of Mexican immigrants who migrated to the Fargo-Moorhead area for better economic opportunities, which included working in its sugar beet fields and the railroad. His father worked as a machinist, his mother an engraver.
He still rides public transit today, frequenting route 6. On days when he needs to fulfill Met Council-related duties, he takes the 94, the express bus connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns.
On The Met Council’s Most Important Function: Planning
I like what the subject is. We have a great team of both planners, researchers and folks that have been in this business and they're very passionate about what they do. So I don't care if it's the Regional Parks Advisory or the E Line over my neighborhood. The people that are working on these in planning, these folks are used to looking at things 30 to 50 years out. That's very different than most other industries around. You talk about things for 30 years, and you really kinda dig into them and see what happened. So I think that the greatest asset that the Met Council has is their ability to plan and really bring people together to do that. We partner with the county on the rail system, we partner with the [regional] parks system, we partner with city government[s] on ‘where do we put the lines and stuff?’
On the E Line
Growing up in Minneapolis, my family didn't have a car, my mother, father, three brothers and three sisters all used transit. It was a vital and integral part of my family. My real freedom came when I started riding a bike. That's one of the reasons I'm excited to be working on the E Line today. I pretty much grew up on what will become the E Line. My first house was on Second Street, right in that corridor, so I know from firsthand experience how this line will benefit the neighborhoods it serves and the region, connecting people to jobs, entertainment and shopping. Arterial [bus rapid transit] lines like C Line and A Line are already paying off on the investments our region has made in transit. Right now, we're engaging with community members and businesses along the corridor as we continue developing the line.
On Transit Safety and the Metro Transit Police
Where I get more feedback is safety. Safety across the system, I mean, you know whether it's on our light rail [or our stations], which provided some challenges. People have to ride [transit], and people need to be comfortable doing that. This is what gets people to work and back.
[The Metro Transit Police Department] is down, like, 60-some officers, and like everybody else, we're looking for a police chief right now. Minneapolis is looking for a police chief right now, St. Paul is looking for a police chief right now. We can't make up the amount of officers in Minneapolis, even with the [recruiting] pool. Just adding officers isn't enough. First, we have to add … a diverse officer corps that [is] more in tune to what the public needs. And [they] may or may not be all police officers, adding more lighting, adding more … interaction around our stops with the families that have people there. I mean, it's not only people getting in and out of the train, for example, it's the people who live along Hiawatha that need to have a more safe atmosphere as well…So there's just a lot of things that we can improve around ridership and safety. And I think it's going to take all of us to kind of walk through it and see exactly what does make a difference.
On Building Ridership
A lot has changed since then, and right now there's the hybrid workforce. So now you [are] coming in three days a week, a lot of [workers] are not coming in Monday or Friday and therefore [are] not riding it. The development around the University of Minnesota, interestingly enough, because now that new student housing is there, they're not riding as often. And that impacts our ridership.
On Free Fares
For me, my daughter has a bus card. I think if you want to bring that next generation of bus riders in, you're using it for schools. I'm fine with subsidies as far as bus ridership, [but] I don't know how we handle it and then still pay for the operations. As we really develop more and more electric vehicles and opportunities, what happens is that our funding — our transit and roads [are] funded through a gas tax — how are you going to get the funding to operate [transit]? And so, it is a bigger, bigger discussion, other than just a waiving-[of]-the-fees. And I think that we did that for how many months during the pandemic where you wear your mask, but you also didn't pay. I don't know if they've done research around what that impact was, but I remember using the bus at that time, I knew they would just wave you in. I guess we're going to find out how we replace the finances that is generated … I don't know if you make it, for example, income specific. [Or at a] certain point, if you're a senior that you get a card. Just making it all free for everybody may not be that cost effective.
Note: Data from Metro Transit shows 97% of riders who rode between April 2020 and July 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, did so without paying. This was during the period where the agency allowed riders to board through the rear door to minimize contact with the drivers. Because the rear doors lacked any method of accepting fare payment, riders were able to board most routes for free.
The cost of housing has been outpacing inflation for several years now. This is a critical issue for the Met Council to address from two perspectives. First, it's a planning and development issue. We need to work with cities, communities and developers to create new housing, including new affordable housing. Affordable housing will be a key issue we address in our 2050 Regional Plan. The Met Council also operates a Housing and Redevelopment Authority which administers almost 7,000 housing vouchers to help low-income people afford housing. Unfortunately, the need for this service far outstrips the available resources from the federal government.
On Electing (as opposed to appointing) The Met Council
I guess I don't have a position on it. Right now I want to focus on the work we're doing. But everything we do has come to the legislature; establishment of the Met Council was a legislative action, our additions to the other services are response[s] to legislative action. The people who would say we should be elected and therefore be more responsible [to the people], they're also the people that want us to do the work here and understand the challenges, especially when you're doing long term planning. [Rather than having] everybody run for office and run for office, [we’re] spend[ing] that kind of time building a team of folks that can address this. Now, they are appointed to four-year terms. And so it's not like they're lifetime appointments, so if that’s what you’re trying to get at, is by making them elected. I don't see that happening overall. But again, that's not my decision.
The Metropolitan Council meets twice a month.