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MnDOT boss lays out goals, initiatives for future

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle, left, addresses an audience Monday at Northern State Supply in Willmar. Zelle said the public has delivered a big dose of mistrust and suspicion of government agencies which may make it difficult for people to consider MnDOT as an integral partner with business and the local economy. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR — When he toured the Polaris manufacturing facility in Roseua a couple weeks ago, Charlie Zelle said he was struck by the fact parts were being delivered right at the time they were needed in the assembly line pro-cess.

It hit home that the state’s network of transportation systems was just as important to manufacturers as any business partner, Zelle said Monday in Willmar during a meeting of regional business, Chamber of Commerce and government leaders.

As the state’s new commissioner for the Department of Transportation, Zelle said MnDOT needs to do a better job of listening to the needs of businesses as part of a statewide transportation plan, and it needs to do a better job of letting people know what MnDOT has done and what’s needed to create a vision and infrastructure for the future.

Some of that is already being done.

Jon Huseby, District 8 engineer in Willmar, launched a pilot project this year to interview manufacturers and food processors in the 12-county area to determine their freight transportation needs. The assessments will help address transportation challenges and priorities of businesses in greater Minnesota.

“It’s going to be more than a report. It’ll be something that’ll make a difference,” Huseby said.

Because of the positive response to the initial survey requests, almost twice as many regional businesses are being interviewed than what was originally planned.

The study, done in partnership with the University of Minnesota/Humphrey School’s State and Local Policy Program, may be replicated across other MnDOT districts.

Zelle said the public has delivered a big dose of mistrust and suspicion of government agencies which may make it difficult for people to consider MnDOT as an “integral partner” with business and the local economy.

It may be one reason why polls aren’t favorable for increased gas tax or vehicle registration fees, he said, even though current revenue is only enough to maintain roads but not expand them.

A short MnDOT video got its first public showing in Willmar, displaying ways transportation links people to jobs, farm markets, community, church and recreation. It also stressed that Minnesota needs to “move from a 50-year-old infrastructure” and look ahead.

Other than vehicle registration fees and gas tax, Zelle said there are few ways to raise money for transportation.

He said Gov. Dayton is well aware of the transportation needs in the state but is steadfast in his disapproval of a gas tax increase.

When asked about a gas tax, Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said most people oppose the idea. However, he added that residents are more opposed to increasing property taxes, which is what counties do when gas tax revenues fall short.

An extended snow season like this year can eat up a county highway budget, leaving less for road construction.

Yet, Madsen said, people say they want better roads.

The gas tax was last increased in 2008 with the full support of the state’s chamber of commerce organizations.

Dee Schutte, executive director from the Litchfield Chamber of Commerce, said that’s not likely to happen this time around.

She challenged Zelle to first come back with specifics about what the 2008 gas tax bought the state and details on how the promised efficiencies were put in place to make the money go further.

Zelle said the request was fair, and another sign that MnDOT hasn’t told its story well enough to let people know about the long list of projects that have been completed in the past five years.

But Madsen said the other side of that story is that people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. That’s resulted in decreased gas tax revenue while at the same time the cost to build roads is increasing.

That imbalance isn’t MnDOT’s fault, Cal Brink, executive director of the Marshall area Chamber of Commerce, said.

Madsen said Kandiyohi County lost about half its buying power last year because of the rising cost of materials, which is expected to keep increasing.

Zelle said Dayton wants to be smart about establishing a transportation vision that will carry the state into the future.

Whether that includes some method for increasing revenue will play out in the next four weeks as the legislature finishes its work, Zelle said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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