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New MnDOT head Zelle ready to bring ‘fresh perspective’ to transportation issues

“I have a lot to learn, but I think I have something maybe a little bit different to offer,” he said.

In addition to running Jefferson Bus Lines for 20 years, Charlie Zelle also has significant public policy experience.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Gov. Mark Dayton and Charlie Zelle were already scheduled to meet at a public Chamber of Commerce lunch on Wednesday, but the encounter took a more dramatic turn after the administration announced earlier this morning that Zelle would take over running the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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Zelle, president of Jefferson Lines, beat out MnDOT veteran Bernie Arseneau for the post, which he will assume in mid-January. Dayton said Zelle’s private sector experience will help the department come to creative solutions to fund Minnesota’s quickly deteriorating transportation system.

A smiling Zelle walked out of the lunch with Dayton to talk to reporters, and New Ideas was the theme.

“Like any organization, through fresh leadership, a fresh perspective is almost always beneficial,” the governor said.

“I have a lot to learn, but I think I have something maybe a little bit different to offer,” Zelle echoed.

In addition to running Jefferson Bus Lines for 20 years, Zelle also has significant public policy experience, as MinnPost noted earlier.

Dayton
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
“Like any organization, through fresh leadership, a fresh perspective is almost always beneficial,” Gov. Dayton said.

The most pressing transportation issue facing the state is a forecasted $50 billion shortfall in needed  long-term funding that a Dayton-appointed task force late last month suggested could be plugged by raising vehicle licensing fees, gas taxes and sales taxes. The governor, though, has voiced his opposition to the plan.

Zelle, a member of that task force, waffled on whether he supports the proposal, which, he said, “speaks for itself.”

“More revenue would be very helpful, but obviously tax increases are very difficult to look at, but then again the challenges ahead they’re hard to look at, too,” Zelle said. “I think we’ve got to recognize that more investments will be helpful.”

Dayton said government needs to come up with innovative ways to fund transportation, not the same tired revenue streams that have contributed to the projected infrastructure deficit.

It’s clear that’s not going to be publicly acceptable, it’s not going to raise the revenues necessary to do what needs to be done, so we’ve got to look to see what are our other options,” the governor said.

DFL Rep. Alice Hausman, incoming chairwoman of the House bonding committee, said she’s thrilled with Dayton’s choice. The transit-frendly St. Paul lawmaker said she believes Zelle’s established relationships with the business community will help lead the way for public officials “to have the courage to invest in infrastructure.”

“I would say we have the potential to change direction a little bit,” Hausman added. “We’re at a point, that’s been a department about roads and bridges. And in the year 2013-2014, we have to be about roads and bridges, but we have to be about all the alternatives out there. The business community is starting to know that.”

Zelle almost mirrored her thoughts.

“Transportation isn’t about roads or transit or outstate or metro. It’s very much part of a system [where] … every different mode, every different part, supports each other.”