“Government should work more like a business.”
We’ve heard them before, but these time-tested clichés will be put to the test at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) now that Governor Dayton has announced the appointment of business executive Charlie Zelle as the department’s new commissioner. Zelle is the long-time president and CEO of Jefferson Lines bus company and has numerous other civic roles on his resume, including chair of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and president of the Guthrie Theater. He’s also steeped in transportation issues—he is co-chair of the Itasca Project’s Transportation Task Force, has served on Governor Dayton’s Transportation Finance Advisory Committee, is a member of the Center for Transportation Studies Executive Committee, and has held many other positions around intercity busing.
Zelle understands the importance of transportation, including transit, in connecting greater Minnesota and creating a thriving and attractive Twin Cities area. He knows—straight from his company’s budget sheet—that the era of cheap gas is over and that demographics are quickly changing transportation demands. He also understands that these trends and fiscal realities call for increased investment and creative ways to approach transportation challenges.
Outgoing Commissioner Tom Sorel did much to restore public confidence in MnDOT and move it toward more innovative solutions to our transportation demands. Commissioner Zelle has the standing, experience, and verve to drive initiatives started by Sorel forward and build on that public confidence with a fresh perspective.
Zelle is also an opportune choice given that transportation finance will undoubtedly be a central topic at the state Capitol this coming legislative session. An initial recommendation calls for about $20 billion over 20 years in new road and transit funding. Zelle should be able to work well with the various sides in such a discussion—Governor Dayton, legislators, the business community, labor and transportation builders, Greater Minnesota and Twin Cities perspectives, and energy and environmental advocates. His first big test: helping build support for a sensible finance package that supports road maintenance and the urgent need to provide more transportation options—like building out the Twin Cities transit system. You can get a sense of his experience and thoughtfulness with this op-ed he co-authored about the strong return on investment an expansion would provide.
His second big task is speeding the transition of MnDOT into a more efficient, flexible agency that is able to deliver 21st-century transportation solutions. For decades, MnDOT has been the “Highway Department” and in many ways, still retains that legacy. Commissioner Zelle needs to bring true culture change to the agency in areas started by Sorel, including multi-modal thinking and a focus on quality of life and sustainability. Such change in a large, decentralized bureaucracy like MnDOT is not easy and will be a new challenge for Zelle compared to his work in the private sector.
Governor Dayton deserves credit for choosing the less traditional route with Charlie Zelle. There were other strong candidates in play, including Deputy Commissioner and stellar long-time MnDOT employee Bernie Arseneau. By choosing Zelle, Dayton maximizes the chances that the so-called “cliché” of government innovation will actually come to fruition at MnDOT and, more importantly, that a great transportation funding package passes at the Minnesota legislature in 2013.