MnDOT plan discussions hit the road; Commissioner Zelle travels to talk transportation systems, costs

The numbers don’t add up, but Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle isn’t throwing up his hands.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle has been urged by his boss, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, to travel the state and talk about transportation and the system the public can expect for their transportation dollars. Zelle, pictured during a hearing in the past legislative session, said in his travels he'll also being doing a lot of listening. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle has been urged by his boss, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, to travel the state and talk about transportation and the system the public can expect for their transportation dollars. Zelle, pictured during a hearing in the past legislative session, said in his travels he’ll also being doing a lot of listening. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“I don’t think the number is scary,” Zelle said of $12 billion in unfunded needs confronting MnDOT over the next 20 years. “I think the number is achievable.”

Zelle, of Minneapolis, wants to tell his story to the people of Minnesota. And he’ll get his chance. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has been urging Zelle and MnDOT officials to take to the road to show Minnesotans the kinds of transportation systems they can have — first-rate, passable — and what the visions will cost.

“Let the people of Minnesota decide,” Dayton said recently.

Zelle has been traveling, recently appearing before the Metropolitan Council, then bound for Duluth next.

Not that the commissioner views MnDOT’s 20-year State Highway Investment Plan, which he presented to the council, as a gem. Just the opposite.

“This isn’t our vision,” Zelle told the council.

But there’s simple, telling arithmetic. Some $30 billion in transportation needs is detailed in MnSHIP, but the investment plan identifies only $18 billion in secure funding. That leaves a $12 billion gap.

The investment plan contains other thought-provoking numbers. For instance, half of state highway pavement is more than 50 years old. More than a third of state highway bridges are more than 50 years old.

Although the plan in the second 10-year phase calls for a focus almost entirely on infrastructure preservation, the number of state roads and bridges in poor condition will double and perhaps triple within 20 years, according to MnDOT.

But Zelle will choose his words carefully when meeting the public.

“I think that’s always a very delicate balance,” he said of linking given projects to funding increases. With transportation projects, things can happen, Zelle explained.

“We don’t want to be so specific that it appears we are giving a promise,” he said.

Transportation advocates applaud Zelle’s mission.

“We’re thrilled he will be out advocating,” said Margaret Donahoe of Minnesota Transportation Alliance.

Donahoe suggested Zelle drum on several things, one being transportation is key to the state’s economy. Business people really do calculate the condition of highways, the proximity of airports, in deciding locations, she said.

Donahoe — like Lona Schreiber, Met Council member — urged Zelle to stress the dedicated nature of transportation funding. That is, gas tax dollars, for example, can’t be diverted by lawmakers to fix the State Capitol roof.

“It really does mean that there’s a locked box,” Donahoe said of constitutional dedications.

Former Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg said Zelle will do a great job advocating for transportation. Zelle needs to carry the message that the state needs a statewide, broad-use, interconnecting transportation system, Tinklenberg said, that is efficient, reliable, safe.

“The fact the number (budget gap) is enormous is not a good excuse for doing nothing,” Tinklenberg said.

If the administration crafts a transportation initiative, it must be broad-based, he said.

“You can’t just have one part,” Tinklenberg said, ascribing the collapse of the past legislative session’s transportation funding initiative in part to a too-narrow approach.

Donahoe agrees. Even with transit, highway conditions are important, she said. Buses are not immune to potholes and congestion, she added.

But where is the business community? Zelle indicated to the council the business community is still smarting from tax increases last session.

“I remain very optimistic,” Zelle said of buy-in from business. His meetings with CEOs and others in the business community have been positive, he said.

Last session the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce did not support transportation tax increases. The chamber is currently forming its 2014 legislative agenda.

In its investment plan, MnDOT cites a number of factors eating away at transportation dollars. One factor is inflation, which, over the course of 20 years, could reduce the funding buying power by 60 percent. Additionally, increased fuel efficiency and fewer miles being driven — the mileage peaking in 2004 — cut away at gas tax revenues.

Dayton opposes increasing the gas tax.

“It’s certainly possible,” Donahoe said of crafting a transportation finance package that does not include a gas tax increase.

Tinklenberg, now a lobbyist, said there are no transportation funding short cuts.

“In transportation, you get what you pay for,” he said.

There will be a public hearing on MnSHIP 4-5:30 p.m. Monday, July 29, in Room G15 at MnDOT Central Office, 395 John Ireland Blvd., St. Paul. Members of the public who are not in attendance can participate via video conference from MnDOT offices across the state.

 

Tim Budig is at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com.

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