MnDOT commissioner travels state to talk long-term transportation plans

(Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories on MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle’s report given at the ECM Publishers Editorial Board meeting Sept. 13. Read the second story here.) 

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle is a bus guy and a visionary of sorts.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle recently met with the ECM Editorial Board to discuss the department's 20-year plan. He also spoke to a 50-year plan. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle recently met with the ECM Editorial Board to discuss the department’s 20-year plan. He also spoke to a 50-year plan. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Zelle has logged seven months as commissioner after being appointed last January by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. Prior to assuming his current role, Zelle served as president and chief executive officer of Jefferson Lines, an intercity bus company with routes in 13 heartland states from Minnesota to Texas. He remains chair of the Jefferson Lines board of directors.

Zelle previously served on Dayton’s Transportation Finance Advisory Commission, an 18-person committee looking at the transportation puzzle.

Zelle’s directive from Dayton has been “to get out there” and tell the story of transportation needs in Minnesota, which has the fifth largest road system in the country.

Zelle is also meeting with the media and took time to sit down with the ECM Editorial Board Sept. 13 at ECM Publishers’ corporate headquarters in Coon Rapids.

Traveling the state, Zelle has been listening to every community story to help frame a statewide vision of transportation.

Yes, there are many transportation needs. Zelle’s campaign consists of information gathered from the Minnesota GO visioning process to better align the transportation system with what Minnesotans expect for their quality of life, economy and natural environment over the next 50 years.

“Our economy is diverse, and we pay the cost for that,” Zelle said.

50-year, 20-year plans

MnDOT initiated the effort to develop the 50-year plan, a vision for all forms of transportation, and ownership of the vision is a shared responsibility. This vision showed roughly a $50 billion gap to achieving a high quality of life, a competitive economy and a healthy environment. To only maintain and preserve the overall transportation system, the cost would be $21 billion, Zelle said.

Transportation planning has been intense, Zelle said, and he emphasized that much of the state’s planning for the next 20 years is shaped in the Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan, or MnSHIP. This plan has been the nuts and bolts of Zelle’s scripted reports to Minnesota communities.

Zelle said the transportation campaign is all about the arithmetic of funding and not about politics.

“It’s giving our perspective for the next 20 years and listening to local perspectives which will help us frame a statewide vision,” Zelle continued.

Investing in improvements

MnDOT has been pretty smart to invest in high-return transportation investments, he said, and this is shaped by MnSHIP. To be competitive in transportation, Minnesota needs to spend $30 billion during the next 20 years, Zelle said. Available resources amount to $18 billion, leaving a shortfall of $12 billion.

The MnSHIP plan for 2014-2033 supports the guiding principles from the Minnesota GO vision and links the policies and strategies laid out in the Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan to improvements on the state highway system. The state highway system is a network of roads that includes interstate, U.S. and state highways. MnDOT maintains the state’s 12,000-mile highway system.

MnSHIP will guide future capital improvements on Minnesota’s state highway system during the next 20 years; it will not affect local or county roads. Most of the money forecast to be needed at the end is dedicated to rebuilding and preserving roads and bridges; 80 percent of the state’s assets are made up of roads and bridges, he said.

There is a need to improve roads and bridges and bring them up to safety standards each year, he said. Expansion is also sought, but there are not enough resources to expand everything that is needed, Zelle said.

The planning is coming in phases and focuses on where the funding has been and where it might be in the future.

Transportation funding comes from four sources:

• Federal dollars, $600 million to $700 million annual budget.

• Gas tax, 49 percent.

• Motor vehicle sales tax.

• Vehicle registration fees.

Zelle said a combination of funding options are needed.

Dayton shied away from calling for a gas tax last session, but it could come up in the next session. Zelle said he believed it was important to have a tax increase every year. He said it could be indexed to inflation or actually set.

The gas tax is a user fee that should be looked at by the Minnesota Legislature on a nonpartisan basis, Zelle said. Looking at the 20-year projections, Zelle said these problems did not happen overnight and solutions also will not happen overnight.

“It is hard to create a sense of urgency for the long term,” he said.

Business expansions are occurring, and populations are moving and becoming more concentrated in the metropolitan areas, Zelle said, so more transportation options will be needed. Freights are projected to go up, maybe by 30 percent – a conservative figure, Zelle believes.

Zelle recently visited the Hormel Foods Corporation of Austin and Alexandria Industries of Alexandria. Both are examples of growing industries relying on shipping, he said.

To stay competitive, Zelle said it is critical that MnDOT stress pavement quality and the importance of maintaining the integrity of bridges.

“Every so often you have to take a jackhammer and go 2 feet down and rebuild concrete,” he said.

MnDOT has accounting standards that it is proud of when credit agencies evaluate the credit worthiness of the state, Zelle said.

“They look at the integrity of our assets, which includes our bridge and highway system,” he explained. Minnesota’s rating is high.

Howard Lestrud can be reached at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com.

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