Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday rejected a proposal to raise gasoline taxes any time soon to fund highway improvements.

"I don't support a gas tax increase at this time, because I think there's not public support for it," Dayton told reporters.

The governor made his comments while introducing his new transportation commissioner, Charlie Zelle, who supported the gas tax hike while serving on Dayton's task force on transportation funding.

The governor set up the task force a year ago and encouraged members to propose bold initiatives to close a gap of up to $50 billion in transportation funding. The panel recommended a gradual 40-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax over two decades.

Another member of the task force thinks Dayton shouldn't back away from that idea.

"He may be right politically, but from an economic point of view this is as close to a user tax as you can get," said Art Rolnick, an economist at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "I would urge him to keep this on the table. You're the governor, make it politically feasible."

Dayton acknowledged the need for more money, but cast doubt on the gas tax as a means to raise it. "I don't see it as providing nearly the amount of money necessary to make significant and really identifiable progress," he said.

Still, he said that Zelle might sell the need to increase taxes of some sort for highways.

"It's going to take Commissioner Zelle going around the state for a couple of years and really getting involved in a discussion, especially with local chambers of commerce ... and with other influential people and making people aware," Dayton said.

Background in bus lines

In selecting Zelle to head the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), Dayton tapped the longtime president and CEO of Jefferson Lines, a Minneapolis-based bus company that serves 13 states across the Midwest.

That includes 60 communities in Minnesota.

Zelle is credited with leading a turnaround in long-distance bus service, modernizing the fleet, restoring Jefferson lines to profitability and emphasizing service in rural areas.

"Charlie Zelle's outstanding record of innovation in the private sector will serve Minnesota well as we build a transportation system which will serve our needs and support our future growth and prosperity," Dayton said in a statement announcing the appointment.

"I know that Mr. Zelle's very successful business career and his strong commitment to public service will make him an outstanding commissioner of MnDOT at this important time."

Zelle will take over Jan. 15 for Tom Sorel, who left to become the CEO of AAA Minneapolis.

Once he comes on board at MnDOT, Zelle will play no role in managing Jefferson Lines' daily operations, though he will continue to chair its board, the governor's office said.

Zelle will recuse himself from handling any business between MnDOT and Jefferson Lines.

Active in public affairs

Zelle has been involved in other transportation ventures, including chairing the transportation committee of the Itasca Project, an alliance of business, public and nonprofit leaders concerned about the region's economic competitiveness.

"I've learned to appreciate the complexity of the issues, the importance of transportation infrastructure to the state's prosperity," he said.

Zelle has donated more than $80,000 to state and federal political causes in the past decade, including $16,000 to this year's successful campaign against the marriage amendment.

He has given money largely to Democrats, including $1,500 to Dayton in 2010. He also donated to former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who ran against Dayton in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

In 2002, he gave $750 to Tim Pawlenty's gubernatorial campaign.

Star Tribune staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. 612-673-4504 612-673-4482