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MNDOT Commissioner: Long-range transportation plan a must

BEMIDJI -- Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle spoke to Bemidji civic leaders Friday to discuss statewide infrastructure needs and what it would mean if a sufficient funding plan isn't passed in the near future.

Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, hosts a roundtable discussion on Friday at the Bemidji office of MnDOT. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle spoke to Bemidji civic leaders Friday to discuss statewide infrastructure needs and what it would mean if a sufficient funding plan isn't passed in the near future.

"As an entire state, we want to move forward with a transportation plan. So I want to remind everybody how important it is," Zelle said. "We're meeting with a combination of citizens, businesses and elected officials, especially locals because people are really involved with this and they understand that this is a challenge we all share."

According to Zelle's presentation, the state is on the "edge of a fiscal cliff" for a number of reasons. By 2030, freight truck and rail traffic is expected to increase 30 percent and 850 bridges will require significant work by 2025. The main issue Zelle said, is that road and bridge funding drops by 18 percent next year will be 49 percent less by 2019.

In his presentation, Zelle stressed this will result in maintenance suffering, more short-term fixes and limited resources for expansion.

"There was a big wave of construction in the ’60s and ’70s and now we've sort of come of age," Zelle said. “Meetings with other state DOTs, there's some states making progress and others still in the mix but we're all hearing common themes."


In order to avoid issues with the state's infrastructure, Zelle said Minnesota needs a long-term investment plan, which will then provide economic growth, support business expansion, enhance safety for the public and reduce costs with early fixes.

At the end of the 2015 Minnesota Legislative session, two transportation plans were proposed and will be taken under consideration when the House of Representatives and the Senate reconvene in 2016.

In Gov. Mark Dayton's plan, $10.6 billion would be provided over the next 10 years. The funding includes $4.4 billion from 6.5 percent gross receipts tax on fuel, $1.45 billion from license tab fees, $2 billion from borrowing and $2.8 billion from a ½-cent metro area sales tax for transit.

The funds would be allocated with $5.3 billion going to state trunk highways, $2.35 billion for counties, townships and cities, $120 million for Greater Minnesota transit and $75 million for safe routes to schools.

The House Republican plan would provide $7 billion over a 10-year period, utilizing $4.03 billion from the general fund, $628 million from unreserved fund balances and federal funds and $2.3 billion from borrowing.

Approximately $3.4 billion would be allocated for state trunk highways, $1.2 billion for counties, cities and townships, $140 million for Greater Minnesota transit, $14 million annually for suburban county roads and bridges and $163 for metro transit capital.

"My conversations with the legislators is that they have been hearing a lot about transportation consistently. It's the one thing they hear about whenever they travel around, so they've expressed interest to me," Zelle said. "They know it's a priority. The governor has said that his two priorities are education and transportation.

"I hear people saying 'Let's get it done,' but on the other hand others say 'It's an election year coming up, can we do this?'" said Zelle.


New models in the nation

As the years pass, Zelle said officials also have to be aware of more fuel-efficient vehicles and their effect on gas taxes. As a response, Zelle said he's looking at what other parts of the country are doing.

"In Oregon, people can be exempt from the gas tax and instead go on a mileage-based system. They're innovating that and we're part of a study group so we're learning from what they're doing and seeing how the citizens like that," Zelle said. "Things like increased fuel efficiency. It's why it's important for us to try and seek different revenue streams and maximize the streams we have."

Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at
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