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Transportation funding at a crossroad

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle was in Alexandria September 6 to discuss transportation's link to the state economy and value of investing in its future. (Amy Chaffins/Echo Press)

Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Commissioner Charlie Zelle delivered a message in Alexandria on Friday: A strong transportation system connects people and it's a state asset worth investing in.

He's holding town hall meetings, sharing details about the state's transportation vision and need for future transportation funding.

He noted that the cost to complete needed improvements and make strategic investments in the transportation network exceed projected funding by an estimated $50 billion during the next 20 years.

The state's transportation network includes state highways and bridges, county and municipal systems, Twin Cities metro and Greater Minnesota transit, freight rail and ports, passenger rail and state airports.

For example, Zelle said, a 30 percent increase in freight traffic is expected over the next 15 to 20 years and that will impact businesses.


Zelle said he toured Alexandria Industries (formerly Alexandria Extrusion) before Friday's town hall meeting and learned the company's biggest cost is logistics and how it gets its products to market.

Road conditions impact that company's logistics, he said.

"One of the interesting ways we've been thinking about MnDOT lately is that we should be as much a part of [a business'] supply chain, like a vendor relationship, as they would with anybody else they work with to get their raw materials," Zelle said. "We at MnDOT have to be thinking about that when those roads are full of snow or there's flooding or some kind of a washout. We could shut down that entire operation unless we stay in tune and understand we are part of their business. So, as much as they have a good relationship with their customers and their vendors, we have to have a good relationship with those businesses by keeping those roads open and maintaining those supply lines."

He added, "There's a business case to be made for investing in transportation. Not just to preserve what we have but to expand in critical areas."


For the state highway system alone, Zelle said, over the next 20 years, there's a need for $30 billion in funding. Funding from existing sources is about $18 billion for that 20-year span.

"So there's a $12 billion gap from what we believe is required to maintain our competitiveness as a state," he said.

"As costs gradually rise, our fixed revenue, mostly gas tax, doesn't go up because it doesn't go up with inflation and as cars become more fuel efficient and people maybe even drive less, our source of revenue to match those expenses doesn't keep pace."

Zelle said he's asked if the department is being efficient with the money it has.

He said, "Yes. There are small ways like the use of LED lighting and some big ways that we can save money and use our existing taxpayer funding to its best use."

For example, he explained the recent department realignment and addition of two deputy commissioners, a chief engineer and a chief financial officer, which has forced the department to take a closer look at how it does business and to continuously improve.

Zelle said he's pushing to make transportation a top-tier issue with the Legislature.

"Transportation is there to support the health of our environment, our systems and our prosperity, our jobs and economy. We don't build transportation and maintain it because we love roads... we do it because they're supporting things that are really essential to our lives," he said.

 Minnesota by the numbers:

-Ranked 38th nationally for pavement condition

-Ranked 9th nationally for state highway bridges

-50% of state pavements are over 50 years old

-35% of state bridges are over 50 years old


Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

(320) 763-3133