Dayton, new MnDOT head differ on gas tax hike

Published 10:57 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday he opposes increasing the state’s gas tax “at this time,” putting him at odds with the man he appointed to lead Minnesota’s Department of Transportation.

Dayton tapped Minneapolis bus company executive Charlie Zelle as the new commissioner of the agency. He has been president and chief executive of his family’s bus company, Jefferson Lines, for more than two decades.

Dayton cited Zelle’s business experience as motivating his choice. But the two immediately took different positions on a proposal, put forward last week by a Dayton-appointed task force on which Zelle served, to raise Minnesota’s gas tax by 40 cents per gallon over two decades to help improve roads and boost transit options.

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The Transportation Finance Advisory Committee called for raising at least $50 billion more for roads and transit in the next 20 years. While saying that Minnesota has gone “backward and downward” in transportation funding, Dayton said a gas tax hike lacks public support.

Zelle stood by the task force recommendation.

“I think more revenue would be helpful,” Zelle said. “Obviously gas tax increases are very difficult to look at, then again the challenges ahead are hard to look at too. We kind of recognized, I think, that more investments would be helpful.”

Dayton said he’d have Zelle travel throughout the state in the next few years to help business groups and others understand the need to find invest more in transportation.

“We can do what we’re doing now, and it will continue to deteriorate and continue to be inadequate for our needs,” Dayton said. “Or we can figure out how to finance a world-class system; or we can settle for something in the middle.”

Zelle’s family founded Jefferson Lines in 1919, and the company now operates in 13 states, from North Dakota south to Texas.

Dayton 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. 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.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation maintains more than 12,000 miles of state highways, including nearly 5,000 bridges. It has a multibillion dollar annual budget for road construction, plowing and other maintenance. With hundreds of employees, it is among the biggest agencies in state government.

Zelle’s predecessor, Tom Sorel, resigned to become chief executive of AAA Minneapolis.

The other finalist for the job was acting commissioner Bernie Arseneau, a longtime engineer.