The leader of the Metropolitan Council resigned Tuesday, and Gov. Mark Dayton appointed the state rail director to take his place at the embattled regional planning agency.
Alene Tchourumoff, who has a decade of experience in transportation and infrastructure planning in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., will guide the agency through the remainder of Dayton's term. She succeeds Adam Duininck, whose tenure as chairman began in January 2015 and was marked by intense debate over Southwest light rail and investment in transit.
The Met Council has been under attack in recent months from Republicans who criticized it for having too much authority and too little accountability. In addition to running Metro Transit, the agency treats wastewater and oversees land-use planning for the seven-county metro area. Bills this legislative session to curb the agency's powers were unsuccessful, however.
Some of those familiar with Tchourumoff said Tuesday that she's up for the challenge.
"She's smart. She's thoughtful. She's a good listener and a good communicator," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. "Those are all good assets to have when you're in charge of an agency that's under attack from some quarters."
The Met Council has a $1 billion budget and more than 4,000 employees, the bulk of whom work in the transit system. The agency is overseen by a 17-member council appointed by the governor.
"Alene's years of experience in planning, rail transportation, and finance will be invaluable as Chair of the Metropolitan Council," Dayton said in a statement announcing the appointment Tuesday.
Tchourumoff said in the statement that she was grateful for the opportunity.
"As the Twin Cities region continues to grow, there is more demand than ever to improve our transportation systems and our infrastructure," she said in the statement.
Met Council spokeswoman Kate Brickman said Tchourumoff was not available for further comment Tuesday.
Duininck said he was leaving to become the head of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. He also worked at a union before joining the Met Council. His last day is July 31.
"I got offered a professional opportunity that was just too hard for me to pass up," Duininck said. "It's bittersweet leaving here."
Rep. Tony Albright, who spearheaded efforts to restructure the Met Council this session, credited Duininck for being forthright as chairman — even if they disagreed. "You always knew where he stood on the issues, so we respected each other for that," said Albright, R-Prior Lake.
Duininck, who was previously married to Dayton's chief of staff, was the council's first full-time chairman. His salary was $144,000, and Tchourumoff is expected to make the same. She begins work after Duininck departs, but her appointment is subject to confirmation by the Minnesota Senate.
Tchourumoff (pronounced CHU-ROOM-OFF) became the state's first rail director in early 2016, a role created to better coordinate rail issues across state agencies — with a particular focus on the safety of oil shipments. She chaired the Council on Freight Rail, a meeting of railroad and public leaders to discuss issues like responding to a derailment.
Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox, who served on the council, said she helped bring together people with widely different viewpoints.
"She's upbeat. She's got high energy. And was able to kind of mold the group into a cohesive effort," Willcox said.
Duininck said Tchourumoff already has been involved with the Met Council, negotiating with freight rail companies on the Southwest light-rail project.
McLaughlin said she will have to complete those negotiations and ensure that the project secures the necessary federal money to proceed.
She also will have to maneuver sticky disputes over affordable housing requirements, regional parks funding and who pays for the wastewater system. And the council soon will review long-term plans submitted by cities across the region, checking to see that they conform to the regional plans.
Duininck aimed to smooth relations with cities by being visible across the region.
"One of the things I told her is it's really important to get out and see everybody and be accessible," Duininck said. "Because it's a big region and people want to see you and know you and want a human face to the Met Council."
Tchourumoff brings an extensive background in transportation planning to the job. She has advised the Federal Railroad Administration as a consultant in Washington, D.C., among other consulting roles in the nation's capital. Before taking the state rail director position, she oversaw planning for Hennepin County's Public Works Department.
Her résumé includes several stints teaching, consulting and training in China. She holds a bachelor's degree from the George Washington University School of Business and a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School.