MnDOT chief: $50 billion needed for transportation

New MnDOT commissioner
Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Charlie Zelle as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation in December 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

State Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said tax increases, tolls and user fees are all on the table as planners look to fill a $50 billion gap over the next 20 years to make Minnesota's transportation system competitive.

Zelle told MPR's The Daily Circuit that just maintaining the current system will cost $21 billion over that same time period. But new light rail lines, and expanded roads and airports will also be needed, he said.

"If we look at some corridors which really do need expansion to accommodate commerce, to accommodate trucking, to accommodate people getting to their jobs," he said, "if you think of the population coming into the metro area, we just aren't equipped to handle the population and maintain the quality of life the state enjoys."

Highway 61 bridge
Construction workers continue to build the new Hwy. 61 bridge over the Mississippi River in Hastings, Minn. Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Zelle is visiting different areas of the state to talk about the state's transportation needs, which are outlined here.

Zelle's conversation with The Daily Circuit was wide ranging:

On the state's 20-year transportation plan that was recently completed:

Zelle says it was part of a federal requirement. The plan basically identifies what's needed to maintain the existing system. "We have to look at existing revenues," he said. "That plan is disappointing to many communities because their need simply isn't in the plan. A lot of good projects aren't on the list."

"The frustration with the 20-year plan is that over time, most of the money is going to preserving and maintaining the roads and bridges we have, not ways to solve congestion, bottlenecks, new expansion," he said.

On whether transportation will be on the agenda in the 2014 legislative session:

Zelle didn't reveal many details of what would be proposed. He says some local transportation projects could be part of the bonding bill the governor proposes. He says infrastructure will certainly be part of the conversation, saying progress is needed on the state's long-term transportation plan.

On whether it could be hard to increase taxes for transportation during an election year:

"I've found, and it's certainly my hope, that transportation funding is a very bipartisan or nonpartisan issue," Zelle said. "Every citizen is touched by transportation."

On ways to increase revenue for transportation:

Zelle said there are a lot of ideas. Raising the current sources (gas tax, registration fees, motor vehicle sales taxes) isn't the only option. "There are no specific proposals at this point...It could be a lot of different combinations," he said. "This is a long-term issue."

Zelle said taxing drivers by miles traveled is another possibility, but it's something that's being debated nationally and might take awhile to be worked out. Tolls or other types of user fees are also an option, he said.

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