The head of a bus company has been chosen as Minnesota's next transportation commissioner.
Charlie Zelle, president and CEO of the Jefferson Lines bus company, was named by Gov. Mark Dayton today to lead the Department of Transportation. Zelle succeeds former commissioner Tom Sorel.
Introducing the new commissioner to reporters at the Minneapolis Hyatt, Dayton said he welcomes Zelle's private sector experience and expertise guiding the Jefferson Lines business through tough economic times.
Dayton said Zelle rescued Jefferson Lines from collapse in the 1980s and made it profitable. It now serves more than 60 Minnesota communities and 13 states across the Midwest.
"His business experience and his business success in building the Jefferson Lines through good economic times and hard economic times; in his spirit of innovation, his involvement in the community is evidenced by his work here with the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota chamber and others," Dayton said. "He is just going to bring a new valuable new dimension to MnDOT leadership."
Zelle participated in a task force set up by the governor to recommend ways to fund public transportation. The committee's recommendations include increasing the gas tax and tab fees.
While Dayton said he does not currently support a proposal to raise the gas tax, he is looking forward to hearing Zelle's ideas on how to increase funding for transportation.
Zelle said he has transportation in his blood.
"Our family has owned Jefferson for three generations," Zelle said. "We actually started it in 1919 when the roads were dirt, and in fact in the 1920s my grandfather used to attach plows to the front of the buses and we kept the roads open — so I'm not suggesting that is a good idea."
Zelle was born and raised in St. Paul, and has a master's degree from the Yale School of Management. He worked in finance on Wall Street before returning to Minnesota to take over Jefferson Lines more than two decades ago. He now lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Julie, and two children.
Upon taking office as commissioner, Zelle will cease managing the day-to-day operations of the bus company. He will also recuse himself from handling any business between MnDOT and Jefferson Lines. He will continue to chair the Board of Directors of the company, however.
His experience gives him a broad understanding of the state's transportation needs, Zelle said.
"I have done a number of things related to streamlining and advancing a business so I understand that, but more importantly I spent a good amount of my time over the past ten years involved in transportation policy issues both locally and nationally."
Zelle is also active in philanthropy and civic causes, contributing tens of thousands of dollars to political candidates and causes over the last decade.
Most of the money went to Democrats, but he also contributed to several Republicans, including President George W. Bush. Zelle and his wife also gave more than $16,000 to the successful campaign to defeat a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
He currently chairs the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. He was also a founding member of the Itasca Project, a group working to improve the state's economic competitiveness and quality of life.
Jay Cowles, president of Unity Avenue Associates, co-chairs the Itasca Project's Transportation Initiative with Zelle. He has known Zelle for 25 years and expects he will bring new ideas to government.
"He's got good instincts for being creative and I think he's a candid fellow," Cowles said. "People trust him and I think the department will find very quickly that he's somebody that they'll both enjoy and respect his judgment very quickly.'"
Cowles said Zelle's contacts in the business community across the state will also help him communicate MnDOT's message.
DFL state Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis is incoming chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee and hopes Zelle will be an ally at the Legislature next year.
"Transportation clearly will be one of the issues that will be important as the session moves forward and I think Charlie Zelle is an excellent out-of-the-box pick for this position," Hornstein said. "It's going to be critical to have someone with a successful business background and high stature running the Department of Transportation, so I'm very pleased and very excited to be working with him."
It is clear that more funding is needed for transportation in the state, Zelle said, but that he understands that tax increases are controversial. He pledged to work with the governor to identify more revenue sources.