The Met Council, the Twin Cities regional planning and transit agency, isn’t alone in how the COVID-19 pandemic affected its operations and people. The shutdowns of many businesses — and the advent of work from home — slashed ridership and revenue for the agency. Already facing a structural deficit, it was pushed further into the red with the loss of farebox revenue — even as it was obligated to continue to operate some services for those who didn’t have the ability to work from home.
It also took on those challenges with a new boss. Charlie Zelle, the former state Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner, was appointed just before the pandemic hit, which he had to address along with other inherited challenges: transit safety, budgets and the increasingly fraught Southwest LRT construction.
MinnPost spoke with Zelle about his first two years in the high-profile position, and how the Met Council plans to move forward. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: It probably seemed like a good idea to have accepted this job when the governor offered it to you in late 2019? How does it look in hindsight?
Charlie Zelle: I am actually thrilled to be chair of Met Council because, especially during these times, I think the work that we do in so many areas is front and center, with the issues that now need to be resolved. And so that’s an honor. But it is funny starting in January of 2020, and just hanging a few pictures on the wall and getting a few meetings and then, suddenly, we’re sent home. I did see the governor shortly around that time and he did look slyly at me and said, “Not what you were signing up for?” So I feel fortunate that we have Gov. Walz. because I think he’s well-suited for these times and I’m thrilled to be part of it. And also I have to tell you. Talk about having life-purpose during these times. … So I actually feel really honored to be engaged in such important work.
MP: Speaking of the pandemic… it took a large bite out of both ridership and revenue. How did Metro Transit, and the Met Council overseeing it, weather both of those and what is it doing to somehow get back to something looking like normal?
CZ: I think two things. One is it definitely hit our ridership hard. Farebox revenue was hurt. But the blessing was the CARES Act [the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March of 2020], and the other federal emergency funding really helped that from a revenue point of view. But also we realized how critical transit is during the pandemic. When we’re actively advertising for people not to ride buses and trains in order to maintain social distancing, when we’re having people enter the back rear doors of the bus, when we started enforcing masks, still we were carrying 90,000 people a day. And so these truly were essential jobs and we were truly providing essential service because but for transit people wouldn’t get to their health care jobs, their manufacturing jobs or the jobs that really you need to be a person to do.
The area of transit that was hit the most was the long express routes to downtowns, which were down 95 percent. Well, of course, there are those of us who can telecommute. Yet the light rail and especially the arterial bus rapid transit were affected least and is actually coming back faster. Which shows that the nature of transit is not long commutes. It’s about the kind of interconnected system where people not only get to their jobs, but they get to the grocery store. I mean, these are providing for people’s lives. And the interesting thing for us now, as we continue to march toward developing a transit network, it’s the critical nature of some of this enhanced bus operations, which we now see is very fortunate. The system that we’re developing is well-suited for what we see as the transit of the future.
MP: Your system and most systems have at the core of its service serving job centers, and often those are central city centers. You have seen that certainly disrupted by COVID. Does that come back or is what comes out of all this a transit system that really is different, more circular, more interconnected, as you’ve already mentioned?
CZ: The nature of express service to downtown cores will evolve, probably recover slower than the rest. But I still think downtowns as employment centers will continue to be very important. And there are employers, as we are now hearing, that might have three days a week rather than five days a week. Maybe the ridership will not fully recover for years. But that doesn’t mean that downtowns aren’t going to continue to flourish because the more I read or the more I talk to employers, proximity matters for collaboration, for teamwork. And so I expect that that element of express service will recover. It’s also important to keep in mind that only represents 10 percent of Metro Transit’s overall service. So even though it’s what we always think of, it’s not the day-in, day-out core. Now we’re carrying as much as 120,000 people a day. They’re not the express riders. This is the regular bus system, the Green Line, the Blue Line.
MP: The Met Council has been trying to respond to both the perception and the reality of unsafe conditions on transit, both buses and [light rail]. I know you have been working on that since you got the job. But can you finish it without some legislative help?
CZ: I think we can go a long way without legislative help. And I think we have. But we’re taking the view of safety through a customer-experience lens: what does it take for us to provide all of our customers a hospitable, welcoming and safe kind of experience? Maybe that’s my private sector experience, but this is much more than just crime statistics. This is about what it feels like to be using our service. But it’s also about what is on the platform, in the transit corridors, whether it’s the Green Line or whether it’s Hennepin Avenue in the core of downtown. We have transit police, we have cameras, we have now our new community service officers in every one of those places. We can certainly go through the list of how we’re leaning into safety and atmosphere. Part of it is a presence for staff beyond police. That’s why community service officers are important. That’s why operator training and bus drivers are so critical. Cameras, live cameras, a centralized support area where we have eyes and ears on every location. You know, I think all these add up.
Overall, there’s no greater feeling of safety than having other people around. So it’s really about the economy warming up. And I described this a lot, about walking through downtown Minneapolis. There’s three guys hanging outside a store who look kind of scary to somebody. Well, they’ve been hanging out there all along. It’s just that there’s nobody else around. And so, you know, we have to kind of build our own sense of confidence, because you read in the news reports about crime, and they’re real, and that freaks people out. It’s not a transit alone. Every city, large and small in the United States is thinking through the same thing.
MP: But at least changing the approach to fare evasion, letting non- commissioned officers give citations, that’s going to require legislative help.
CZ: I think we made great progress in helping get bipartisan support and interest. To have Chair [Scott] Newman and the Senate Transportation Committee be supportive. We had, and certainly we have, Republican support in the House. So it isn’t just about decriminalizing fare evasion. It’s about how do we create a safe environment. And yes, this one makes just so much practical sense. So I’m confident that we will get it decriminalized to the extent we can give citations. But we decided not to wait. Community service officers can give a warning, they just can’t issue tickets.
We’re just taking every step along the way. With workforce shortages, we don’t want to wait. We want to start hiring those community service officers as we can. And we’re actually expanding our police force, not contracting it. We’re having some more police help support those community service officers, but also having more people in those centralized locations to monitor cameras takes more people. So we’ve authorized hiring more police officers. Of course, we’re down like every other place. So we’re continuing to recruit and hire.
MP: You inherited what already was, and is, the state’s most expensive public works project, (the $2.2 billion) Southwest Light Rail Transit. But when you inherited it, at least it had a projected completion date. And I keep looking on site and looking at the timeline to see if you slipped in an expected completion date. And I don’t see that yet.
CZ: Are you blaming me for that? I appreciate it. Hey, what responsibility.
MP: Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
CZ: Well, you know, it is the biggest public works project in the state’s history. It’s also the most complex. And I think, when I came it was really important for me to achieve that full funding agreement with the federal agencies. The FTA, during the Trump administration, wasn’t keen, but they passed it. But then getting into the complexities of the project there’s two big elements. This is all very public, the corridor protection wall in the Bryn Mawr area was way over budget. And really, the gnarly issue is the schedule, the delays. And no, we didn’t slip in a completion date. We’re still in the process of working with the civil contractor to re-schedule; it’s called re-baselining.
But we’re looking at how do we deploy the various work units to ensure that no time is wasted. And although it is delayed, how do we mitigate that delay to the least possible time as possible. And I think that really revolved around the complexity of the Kenilworth tunnel, which is the gnarliest — that’s not an engineering term, it’s mine — segment of this whole very complicated project. It’s not just the tight, narrow corridor, but the soil conditions, and the building practices of working during work hours to not disrupt the neighborhood has been really challenging. And I think that is driving in part the delay, and time is money. So it’s more cost and more time. We’re really getting close to finding the schedule that everybody can sign up for and believe in and hold the contractor accountable to. But it isn’t easy. And we’ve got a lot of outside expertise that I had confidence in when I was MnDOT commissioner. So we had the right people at the table, and I’m confident we’ll be able to find a solution. It’s not easy.
MP: Okay. But I guess what is sort of puzzling as a lay person is, given the amount of work that was done leading up to that project, that something like soil conditions in Kenilworth Corridor would come as a surprise.
CZ: I have many neighbors — I live in the area — who seem to have advanced degrees in engineering and soil-penetrating eyeballs because there actually were surprises, as I understand it. One of the challenges is what works on paper and when you’re in the field are sometimes very different. So as I’ve understood, and I learned, from other projects around the country, that this is not something that isn’t seen in many places. And whenever projects go into the ground it seems that’s the part when unpredictable events can happen. That’s really what hit this project.
You would think with all the soil borings in the environmental work that was done in the planning, there is a sense of why — why wasn’t this known. But when you get into the details, you realize the complexity of it. You couldn’t have foreseen this, both in the conditions that are there, but also in the building practices. … to build the structures and keep it safe next to a condominium association, when you’re inches away. I think it was a general decision of both Hennepin County and Met Council and staff to say we are going to use every caution as possible, we’re not going to risk damaging a building.
MP: Will the Blue Line Extension ever get built?
CZ: Great question. When I came in, we still had the Blue Line routed along the BNSF [railway] corridor. But I had a lot of experience as commissioner with the executives of BNSF and made several trips to [BNSF headquarters in] Fort Worth. And I know and was convinced that that just was not going to happen.
I think what’s interesting is this new alignment, away from the BNSF corridor through north Minneapolis, has actually met with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. Because unlike maybe 10 years ago, north Minneapolis recognizes the value and the opportunity that comes by having this kind of robust transportation connection. So I actually think, despite the four years of delay, we are very much marching forward, but we’re doing it. And I think our project team refers to it as moving at the speed of trust. We are looking for a community supported alignment. And that means we take the time in ways that have never been done before engaging in multiple ways with the community, not just north Minneapolis, but Robbinsdale and on north. I think it’s definitely going and I think it’s met with some interest. I think now we’re getting to the point of, “Let’s get more specific.”
As I learned from transportation, you can think high thoughts, but it comes down to each individual block and each individual curb cut and the devil is in the details. So this is a period of you’re really looking at different alignment options to ensure that we’re doing the right thing and recognizing that with economic opportunity also comes gentrification. So we’re really leaning heavily into anti-displacement techniques, not starting with a solution, really investigating how can we assure renters, owners, businesses, residents will benefit? It’s a tricky, tricky needle to thread. I think we’re getting the right approach with the right partners. And really for me, as a white male chair, I get to listen, and learn and support. So that’s a good role for us.
MP: The Legislature has approved what I’m pretty sure is a historic investment in bus rapid transit. Four lines have received money: two in the 2020 bonding bill and two more in the 2021 transportation omnibus bill. Can you put that into context as far as the depth and breadth of that sort of investment, how it changes your system and how riders would benefit from that?
CZ: I refer you to a map. You could have in your mind’s eye the before picture of the two light rail segments we have now and the other transitways that are under construction. The as many as 10 identified arterial bus rapid transit lines are the connective tissue between what I call the backbones of our transitway system. They are the game changer. When we can go from 15 percent of our residents having access to quality public transportation, and we’ll triple that, quadruple that in this next 10 years. I mean, that makes us a system as opposed to a line that goes from point A to point B.
The success of the A Line and the C Line really points to how powerful these [arterial bus rapid transit] systems can be. We’re building it out pretty quickly in conjunction with local governments. We’re looking at Hennepin Avenue being rebuilt. It’s being rebuilt to accommodate an E Line and the new way. These are really important corridors, these are corridors that have already been strong, you know, regular bus systems like Lake Street. The B Line, people call it the equity line, but I call it the connecting line. Because unlike Route 21, which meanders down the street, Lake Street will be rebuilt. It connects from the Green Line at Westlake to the Orange Line, which is opening in a week, to the Blue Line then the A Line all the way to the Gold Line. These are the connective tissue. And because they operate like light rail — every 10 minutes, you don’t have to look at the schedule, standing at this enhanced platform — I think it not only increases ridership, it increases people’s ability to get to where they want to go in a reasonable amount of time. These go deeply into suburban and exurban areas.
I think we will be leading the nation in this form of connectivity. We’re behind in terms of the large, robust light rail, But with both the transitways and light rail coming online, and then this connective tissue we will be leading. That’s the transit network of the future.
MP: You mentioned earlier the federal assistance through the pandemic — billions of dollars to the states — directed specifically at transit. Can you summarize what that did for you and what you might do in the future with some of those funds?
CZ: The three different kinds of recovery funds were really dedicated toward sustaining operations and maintaining employment, and not just mitigating the farebox losses. But frankly, it is extending the period of time where our structural deficit was heading us into a brick wall. So if you go back two years, we were facing — as Metro Transit has every biennium — a structural deficit, with Metro Mobility showing an even wider gulf. Now, with what the Legislature has passed and with the help of recovery funds, we were able to commit in the next several years to have balanced budgets. … That does not solve my structural deficit, but it really allows us to give ourselves time to build up our transitways and to work on larger transportation funding in the future. Metro Transit was going from crisis to crisis every two years. Now, breathing room.
And then the new infrastructure bill, which really gives us and all of Minnesota, and all modes — highway bridges especially — the ability to really plan for a 10-year time horizon. It is increased funding. It’s not one big funding event, it comes over time. But it means some of those larger projects can be funded. We do need local match funds. I know for transit there’s a lot of capital investment coming toward transit. That, again, could help ABRT [arterial bus rapid transit], it could help some of the other expansions. We’re staying tuned. We know it’s good news. We just don’t know where it’s going to be good news. But I think that the most important point is the recovery funds have given us a breather for not just covering the farebox and getting time for recovery, but also extending our structural deficit.
MP: There was also talk of electrification of some of your fleet. Is that going to happen?
CZ: Yes, and I think that’s a great part of the new infrastructure package — helping feed one of our bigger aspirations, which is to electrify the busway. We already have pilot programs through our regular funding. We have started bringing in 40-foot electrical buses over time. And now some of our wishes can actually be fulfilled and do that much faster as the technology, the reliability and then our fleet-replacement plans will now be supported. Electric buses are maybe twice as expensive. There’s also the charging systems and mechanisms that you need to put in place. That means you can’t just do one or two buses. The more scale you have the more reason there is to put the systems in place to support electrification. So that’s a huge benefit from this bill.
MP: It looks like you’re gonna need a new Metro Transit police chief (Chief Eddie Frizell has been nominated to be U.S. Marshal for the region). What do you think the council will look for in a new chief? And what’s the timeline for a decision on that?
CZ: First off Eddie Frizell is well-qualified; we’re really thrilled that he is nominated for that position. And I think it’s also gratifying that they looked to both him and frankly I will say the program he has been developing in Metro transit police because it’s a good one. He has really good stories — a diverse workforce, 21st century policing, some of the other changes like our community service officers that have developed under his watch. I think by statute we can’t officially start a search until he is actually confirmed. So we’re in one of those “we’re thinking about it” phases. We wish him the best and a rapid confirmation. But this is not a time for a wholesale shift. We need to have somebody who has leadership qualities to retain and build on what we think has been a good program today. We’ll all just stay tuned. But in the meantime, we have a whole working group. And then the council was thinking about safety, policing, policy. So our whole point is it needs to be customer-based, stakeholder-based, thoughtful. And that’s an evolution. We don’t ever want to be saying we solved everything because we haven’t. We’re going to continue to make changes.