Minnesota transportation spending: Will business support?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2013 - 9:52 PM

Commissioner speaks the language, but higher taxes will be one of his tougher sales.

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Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle says building out the envisioned rail/bus/bike transit system in the metro area means “not just convenience, but a way to attract and retain employees, attract and retain businesses, and improve the disparities we have in incomes.

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Gov. Mark Dayton has a 30-year reputation as a government boss who asks a lot of his employees, and generally gets it. Still, I doubt he’s ever asked as much as he’s asking of Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle this summer.

Then again, I wonder if any governor has had a transportation chief better suited to the politically charged assignment Zelle has been handed: Go sell a multiyear batch of transportation tax increases to Minnesotans, with special focus on — gulp — the state’s leading business organizations.

Those would be the very organizations that are starting to amass a multimillion-dollar war chest to unseat Dayton in the 2014 election, mostly because they don’t like the governor’s willingness to raise taxes.

They’re also the very organizations in which Zelle was a transportation policy leader for years, until he threw in with the Dayton administration six months ago. As the longtime president and CEO of Jefferson Lines bus company, Zelle was chair of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and cochair of the Itasca Project Transportation Initiative. He’s still listed as a member of the state Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

That means that on June 13, when Zelle walked into the state Chamber policy board’s inner sanctum, he was a familiar figure. Whether he was received as an old friend or a new enemy — or both — is hard to discern (especially since journalists were not invited). Chamber staffer Kate Johansen would only say afterward that the big business group’s thinking about state transportation needs is “in process.”

“There’s interest but hesitation” in what Zelle was selling that day, Johansen said. As for Zelle, “he’s been a wonderful chamber member,” she said. But the state’s business leaders “want the governor to talk to them. They want to see a plan.”

The Dayton transportation plan has this much in common with business thinking: It’s “in process.” Zelle isn’t out selling a specific blend of taxes and fees — not yet. But as he contemplates a rigorous summer and fall schedule of appearances around the state, he intends to formulate that plan based on what he hears, he allowed in a recent conversation.

Zelle uses the words “comprehensive,” “statewide” and “competitive” to describe what’s coming. “World-class” slips in, too. I take that as a clue that he’s not thinking about just a few more cents on the gas gallon, or a fraction on the metro sales tax, or a few high-tech toll roads or wheelage fees or license tab hikes. The Dayton/Zelle plan may well contain all of the above and more.

He also isn’t ready to say when it’s coming. Dayton has been saying since February that he would like to devote the 2014 legislative session to government reform, including repeal of outdated statutes and streamlining of regulation. He calls it “the Unsession.”

Throw a big controversial transportation tax proposal onto the agenda, and the Unsession would become the Transpo Session in short order. It won’t be a replay of 2007-08, the last time transportation dominated state politics. That spell included the tragedy of a bridge collapse and the political drama of a veto override in which six Republican legislators crossed a Republican governor’s gauntlet and voted for a package that included a 7.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase.

But even without a veto in the plot, a 2014 Transpo Session would be fraught with tension as swing-seat House DFLers (the Senate isn’t on the 2014 ballot) struggle to discern what their constituents dislike more, deteriorating mobility or higher prices at the pump.

The nervousness that tends to be epidemic at the Capitol in election-year sessions will augur for delaying the whole messy matter until 2015. But delay would carry its own risky downside. Antitax Republicans could wind up back in charge of the House and/or the governor’s office in 2015, postponing any new transportation funding infusion indefinitely.

It’s up to Zelle to explain to Minnesotans — and especially to the business leaders who are planning to write big checks to Republican candidates — why that would be a problem.

He’ll undoubtedly draw on the findings of a yearlong task force on which he was one of 18 members (five of them business representatives), the Transportation Finance Advisory Committee. It reported in December that Minnesota “cannot preserve the existing quality and performance of the state’s transportation systems under current investment levels and current infrastructure replacement lifecycles.”

The state has three options, it said: Do nothing and watch both mobility and the economy deteriorate, come up with an additional $21 billion over the next 20 years to preserve the status quo in service quality, or aim higher with investments that would spur economic growth. The report said doing that right would take $50 billion to $55 billion — but Zelle says it would produce a return on that investment many times over.

For example, he said, building out the envisioned rail/bus/bike transit system in the metro area means “not just convenience, but a way to attract and retain employees, attract and retain businesses, and improve the disparities we have in incomes. This makes a whole lot of sense.

“We haven’t made as good a case for the larger statewide return on transportation investment, the societal gain. We need to do that.”

When Zelle invokes return on investment, he’s speaking a language business folk understand. He also uses their lingo when he acknowledges that more transparency and accountability at the Minnesota Department of Transportation would help sell a new investment package. His pitch includes a description of what was purchased with the 8.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase that was enacted in 2008 (think bridge repair) and what’s being done inside MnDOT to enhance efficiency.

But after a career spent selling intercity bus travel, Zelle is enough of a salesman to know that he’ll need more than arithmetic to convince Minnesotans to dig deeper for a transportation investment surge. He needs a vision. He wants to describe what a competitive transportation system would look like, and how businesses would benefit from it. He’s got a video to help him; it’s at www.dot.state.mn.us/tfac.

“We don’t aspire to have world-class transportation because we love concrete and I-beam spans are the coolest thing in the world,” he said of MnDOT. “It’s because we aspire to have a world-class state. It’s about the people and its citizens. It’s really about health, the environment and our prosperity.”

Though much has changed at the Capitol since the last Transpo Session, this hasn’t: The business community is still the big dog. Even in DFL hands, the Legislature isn’t likely to enact a multiyear, big-bucks plan unless the state Chamber of Commerce, the Business Partnership and their allies give their assent.

Zelle’s credibility and clarity should help those business organizations decide whether, on this issue, their self-interest lies in trying to beat this governor or in joining him.

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  • Charles Zelle, long involved in the commerce community, is now state transportation commissioner. Whether he is seen as an old friend or new enemy is hard to discern.

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