Bus company leader named Minn. transportation head

Charlie Zelle
Charlie Zelle has been named the new head of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Zelle, of Minneapolis, is president and chief executive of Jefferson Lines, a regional bus company that operates in 13 states.
Photo courtesy of Gov. Dayton's office

Gov. Dayton today appointed Charlie Zelle to be state transportation commissioner.

Zelle, of Minneapolis, is president and CEO of Jefferson Bus Lines -- a company founded in 1919 and is still family-owned and operated. Zelle rescued the company from collapse in the '80s and made it profitable.

"Charlie Zelle's outstanding record of innovation in the private sector will serve Minnesota well, as we build a transportation system, which will serve our needs and support our future growth and prosperity," Dayton said in a written statement. "I know that Mr. Zelle's very successful business career and his strong commitment to public service will make him an outstanding Commissioner of MnDOT at this important time."

Dayton's announcement cited Zelle's work expanding the company, modernizing its fleet and starting a program aimed at college students with a need to travel between home and school.

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Once Zelle begins work for the state in January, he'll no longer be involved in day-to-day business with Jefferson Lines and will recuse himself on any business between the state and the company, according to the announcement. He'll remain on the company's board of directors.

Zelle is inheriting a department that gets plenty of attention. He'll be in charge of ensuring the state's roads and bridges are safe and will help set the agenda for future transportation construction.

He'll also have to do it as groups call for increased funding for transportation projects. A task force appointed by Gov. Dayton has called for higher gas taxes, license tab fees and sales taxes to meet the growing transportation needs of the state.

"It is a great honor to join the Dayton Administration in an area that is critically important to all Minnesotans," said Zelle. "MnDOT has a strong reputation for innovation, and I look forward to helping lead the agency as it plays an increasingly important role in advancing the state's future prosperity through key investments in infrastructure."

The other finalist Dayton interviewed was acting commissioner Bernie Arseneau, an engineer who's been with MnDOT for 29 years in a variety of positions.

Zelle is well connected to the business community. He currently serves as the chair of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. He's also a well-known donor to DFL candidates.

He and his wife gave $1,750 to Gov. Dayton's campaign for governor in 2010. Zelle also served as chair of R.T. Rybak's gubernatorial committee in 2010. Rybak dropped out of the race for governor after he lost the DFL endorsement.

Zelle was also one of the state's first business leaders to speak out against a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Zelle will start his job on Jan. 15.

He replaces Tom Sorel, who resigned on Dec. 1 to become the CEO of AAA Minneapolis.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)