It was a frigid weeknight in downtown Minneapolis, but Finnegans’ taproom was packed with pint-swilling patrons in anticipation of the evening’s headliner.
It was Charlie Zelle, the outgoing commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, known as MnDOT to most. He was there to assure the citizenry that the $239 million 35W@94 project — road construction on steroids along one of the busiest freeways in the state — is not only necessary, but worth the wait.
The barroom setting a few weeks back wasn’t at all out of character for the garrulous Zelle, who is leaving this week after spending the past five years traveling about the state preaching the mantra that a modern transportation system is essential for a vital economy.
“You need to find people where they are,” he said in a recent interview.
Appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, Zelle assumed the helm of MnDOT in 2013 with no experience running a $4 billion government agency with some 5,000 employees. His legacy includes several completed high-profile projects, including the St. Croix River bridge and the Hwy. 53 span over the Rouchleau Mine in Virginia.
Zelle, 63, sought to broaden MnDOT’s historic focus on roads and bridges to embrace all modes of transportation, and he laid the groundwork for a fast-approaching future involving automated vehicles.
But he struggled to convince Republican lawmakers and others that a long-term, dedicated source of transportation funding, including an increased gas tax, was needed to prop up the state’s aging infrastructure. A recent report card issued by an engineering group graded Minnesota’s roads a lowly D-plus.
“He will leave as frustrated as anyone that we never got any new money into the [transportation] system, certainly not to the order that’s needed,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.
That’s a battle left to his successor, Margaret Anderson Kelliher — an experienced politician who helped pass the last major transportation legislation in 2008, despite a veto by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Zelle is bullish about the department’s future: “Margaret is a really great person,” he said. “She knows the Legislature.”
‘No aspiration or interest’
When Zelle was approached by now-U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, then Dayton’s chief of staff, about the MnDOT job, he was hesitant. “I had no aspiration or interest,” he said, laughing. But the “intersection of policy and transportation” persuaded him to give it a try.
As the head of Jefferson Lines, a commercial bus business founded by his grandfather, Zelle was an unusual pick; he was certainly not a career bureaucrat or politician. A Yale University MBA, he spent his early career on Wall Street, returning home in 1986 to revive his family’s troubled bus and commercial real estate business, which included St. Anthony Main at the time.
Scott Peterson, assistant commissioner for policy and government affairs at MnDOT, said Zelle’s insight from the private sector has been healthy for the department. That has helped “to really squeeze the maximum value out of every dollar we spend.”
But Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said MnDOT “is a big department and there are still challenges and some issues with efficiency. Efficiencies are hard to quantify. I still think there’s room for improvement there.” Yet Torkelson, who chaired the House Transportation Finance Committee, calls Zelle a “great guy” who was “a good spokesman for the department.”
Zelle said “there was this myth that a business person would come in and identify expenses to be cut.” He was more interested in finding low-cost solutions to save money, such as using cheaper (but more durable) aluminum piping in culverts, and “only buying the right of way that you really need” for construction projects.
His background may have afforded him some credibility with the state’s business community, as well. “I can understand what it means to make a payroll, what it is to have increased costs,” he said.
Dayton said Zelle has done an “outstanding” job, noting “his strong commitment to public service and his dedication to the safety of Minnesotans. … As Minnesota’s public transportation system has grown, Commissioner Zelle has shown exemplary leadership in supporting its continued evolution and ensuring it meets our state’s many diverse needs.”
In 2016, the state’s Legislative Auditor recommended that MnDOT increase the transparency of its decisionmaking process. The department, the report noted, should better engage the public.
During Zelle’s tenure, “we’ve seen more transparency and openness at the department, and more of a conscious effort to reach out to community leaders to talk about the impact transportation projects have,” said Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a transportation advocacy group.
Zelle said he has tried to improve MnDOT’s relationship with the communities it serves. Two years ago, for example, he attended a healing ceremony in St. Paul’s diverse Rondo community, which was devastated when Interstate 94 bifurcated its heart. Zelle apologized for that fateful decision.
“To own an apology you have to first really mean it, and then really know that you’re going to change, and put some resources and people and ideas behind it,” he said, growing emotional.
The outreach has sometimes taken on unusual forms, such as the time MnDOT hosted several hundred people from south Minneapolis for dinner last August on the new 38th Street bridge over I-35W. Zelle admits some at MnDOT thought the idea was a bit daft. But, he said, “we’re not just the unfeeling highway department.”
As his term comes to an end, Zelle is going to “clear my calendar and clear my head.” He’ll continue as chairman of Jefferson Lines, and he’s joined the board of Sawmill Trust, a South Dakota-based financial firm. And he’ll plot his next move, likely something involving transportation. “It gets in your blood,” he said.
“This has been the experience of a lifetime, this is a great agency that reaches all Minnesotans,” Zelle said. “It’s bittersweet, but it’s time to leave.”