MnDOT commissioner focuses on money management for transportation needs, planning

(Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories on MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle’s report given at the ECM Publishers Editorial Board meeting Sept. 13. Read the first story here.) 

 by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

There will be a federal role in transportation funding, but it will probably not expand, Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle told the ECM Publishers Editorial Board in a Sept. 13 meeting. With gridlock in Washington, D.C., more funding and responsibility will be left to the states and regions, Zelle believes.

Zelle said federal stimulus funding several years ago was a godsend, as was funding provided on the state level by the transportation bill of 2008, which featured an override of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto.

Zelle said that one of MnDOT’s worst moments came when the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapsed in 2007.

“We learned a lot when we built the new bridge,” Zelle said. The agency was then praised for the speed, focus and innovation of the bridge replacement. Support came from federal, local and state funds, he said.

That bridge expertise shows in the new Hastings bridge, which is a marvel, Zelle said. Part of it is open with the remaining part to be opened later this year. This project would not have happened without the stimulus funds and override of the governor’s veto, Zelle said.

MnDOT has done $1 billion in construction work this season and in the past five years has completed considerable work, he said.

“We have caught up on a lot of our work,” he said. He said it takes multiple years to plan a construction program. He said funding will go back down for 2016 and 2017.

“We need a sustainable source of money for our projects, and part of the challenge is that the gas tax is locked and does not increase with inflation. Costs go up. Our resources are flat, and the purchasing power goes down,” he said.

Zelle said national polls have shown that when citizens know there are dedicated funds for roads, bridges and transit systems and they see a benefit from this, they are open to the costs.

“We need to connect the benefit with what we are asking,” Zelle said.

Managing resources; staff realignment takes place

Zelle is the first person to say that the transportation system is complicated, he said. People often do not know there is a combination of funds.

“This is not a general fund issue,” Zelle said. It’s largely a user pay system and is not perfect, Zelle said.

“Let’s stay competitive and be smart and efficient with our funds,” Zelle said.

He said some of that efficiency is being captured by MnDOT in recently realigning its leadership. Zelle said two experienced staff members have been hired, Susan Mulvihill, with 30 years of experience in the transportation field, and Tracy Hatch, the new chief financial officer.

Zelle said three or four goals have been identified internally to measure the cost and financial implication of MnDOT projects and services.

“We need to be more transparent,” Zelle insisted. “Where is the money going, and where is it being used?”

Upgrades use technology, save money

Harnessing technology is always important for businesses to grow. Technology that helps, for example, manage the capacity of traffic is important to MnDOT, Zelle said.

“We must be prudent with the taxpayer dollars and can’t just add more traffic lanes. Managing lanes is more practical,” he said.

It makes sense to collect data and use it in a way that makes sense, Zelle said. Getting people downtown and back is challenging because there are so many stakeholders and their needs are clear, Zelle pointed out.

Zelle also touched on toll lanes and said this will bring a tough debate.

“Tolling is an option we should consider,” Zelle said.

MnDOT has been given the authority and responsibility to plan, but Minnesota legislators have always resisted earmarking, Zelle said. The needs of the entire state must be balanced, he said.

Zelle was asked if MnDOT was in harmony with the Metropolitan Council on transportation issues. Zelle did not hesitate to say that he is entirely aligned with the Met Council.

“One system doesn’t work without the other one,” he said. He used the Southwest Corridor light rail project as an example of how the two agencies work together to mitigate congestion.

Zelle said the increased use of roundabouts is a type of traffic control much less expensive than traffic control lights and more environmentally embraced.

Regarding current transportation dangers, Zelle said bridges often are mentioned. He said MnDOT has a very robust testing and inspection program aimed at bridges. In respect to traffic congestion, Zelle said there are four corners of congestion in the metropolitan area. He said I-94 and I-494 are areas of concern. Managing traffic lanes is a way to remove congestion, he said.

The quality of road work is important, Zelle said. “We must push our research” in respect to the quality of materials used in road and bridge construction, he said.

Planning is essential, he said.

“We would like to be smart in predicting for the future, but until you really experience the problems, you really don’t know.”

 

Howard Lestrud can be reached at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com.

 

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