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MnDOT commissioner talks budget in Bemidji

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle, left, visits with Ray Higgins, director of operations for the Minnesota Timber Producers Association. Zelle was in Bemidji Tuesday to talk about the state’s transportation system. Monte Draper|Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – It’s fitting the governor’s transportation commissioner is spending a lot of his time recently on the road.

On Tuesday, Charlie Zelle made his first visit to the local Minnesota Department of Transportation office as its commissioner, a job he took over in January. He spoke with local business leaders and elected officials about the transportation issues across the state.

Chief among those issues: How does the state pay for its transportation system?

“This is going to be an ongoing conversation,” Zelle said.

Growing population and industry will put more pressure on the state’s transportation system, Zelle said. Meanwhile, about 50 percent of pavement maintained by MnDOT is currently more than 50 years old.

Zelle’s visit comes a day before MnDOT announces upcoming construction projects across the state.

A task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton recommended last year to increase the gas tax and tab fees as a way to help pay for transportation improvements in the state. Zelle, who then was the president and CEO of Jefferson Lines bus company, helped craft the study. 

Dayton said earlier this year he didn’t support a gas tax increase at the time, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Ray Higgins, director of operations for the Minnesota Timber Producers Association, urged Zelle to be careful with potential gas tax increases.

“For our industry, trucking is not a revenue source, it’s an expense,” Higgins told Zelle. “Raising taxes is going to hurt these businesses…However on the flip side, they want safe roads too.”

“It is a really tough issue for us,” Higgins added.

By 2030, the amounts of goods carried by truck are projected to increase by 30 percent, according to a MnDOT handout provided at the meeting. Meanwhile, goods carried by train and planes will increase by about 25 percent each. 

Zelle said as vehicles become more fuel efficient and less gas is being used, a fee based off of user mileage may be needed. He acknowledged some logistical problems with that idea, however, including privacy concerns.

 “I think somewhere along the way we’re going to have to figure out some kind of mileage program user fee,” Zelle said. “The reality is there is no easy answer.”

He added a kind of a fee based off mileage is probably inevitable, “but I don’t know what decade that will happen.”

Zelle emphasized funding transportation is not just an added expense, but rather an investment.

“I’ve talked to those who are trying to attract businesses to come to Minnesota,” Zelle said in an interview. “The first thing they ask about is workforce, the second thing is transportation infrastructure.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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