Former Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle will become the next leader of the powerful regional agency that manages public transit, affordable housing, wastewater and land use planning in the metro area.
Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday that Zelle, 64, will take over as Metropolitan Council chairman on Jan. 6.
A longtime businessman who led his family's bus company, Jefferson Lines, Zelle first entered the public sector in 2013 when then-Gov. Mark Dayton picked him to lead the transportation agency MnDOT.
Zelle will guide the planning agency that has a vast mission, about 4,500 employees and a nearly $1.2 billion budget. While the Met Council's work often flies under the public radar, it is involved in numerous high-profile projects in the seven-county metro area — from tackling the lack of affordable housing to adding the controversial Southwest light rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
The St. Paul native is taking the helm at the Met Council following former Chairwoman Nora Slawik's resignation in November. Slawik stepped down after about 10 months on the job, saying the demands of the post had created health problems. Council Member Molly Cummings, the former Hopkins mayor, has served as interim chairwoman following Slawik's departure.
In Zelle, Walz chose a permanent replacement with deep private sector experience in transportation, a critical facet of the council's sprawling portfolio of regional planning.
"I'm just pleased that he chose to come back and do public service," Walz said Monday, describing Zelle as "highly respected" and someone who has connections across the metro area and state.
"It's good to have somebody in there who understands both the transportation issue, the water quality issues, the housing issues and has that perspective," Walz said.
In a statement, Zelle said "the Council serves the critical function of bringing Twin Cities leaders together to invest in infrastructure and build an equitable economy. I am committed to applying my private and public sector experiences to help achieve the vision of a prosperous region — for everyone."
The council is one of the largest regional agencies of its kind in the nation and is run by a 17-member council appointed by the governor. With the power to supersede the decisions of local governments, the council has often clashed with lawmakers and local officials in communities across the region.
Boosters of the council, which dates to 1967, say it serves a critical role in coordinating regional growth and development among some 180 communities that make up the Twin Cities environs.
"At this moment in time, he's a perfect fit," said Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, noting Zelle's existing relationships with MnDOT and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The first quarter of next year will reveal whether Southwest wins a critical $929 million grant from the FTA to help build the 14.5-mile light-rail line.
Zelle will need to jump-start the $1.5 billion Bottineau Blue Line, a light-rail project that has languished due to failed negotiations with BSNF Railway, which would share much of the route between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park.
Slawik was the second of Walz's initial appointees to quit during their first year on the job. Former Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey left in July without a clear reason amid a shake-up in the top levels of leadership at that agency. Both Slawik and Lourey had extensive backgrounds in elected office. Lourey spent about 12 years in the Minnesota Senate, and Slawik served 14 years in the House and four years as Maplewood mayor.
Their replacements have not held elected office, but bring management experience from the private and nonprofit sectors.
The new Human Services commissioner, Jodi Harpstead, led Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and previously spent more than two decades at Medtronic.
Zelle started his career as a Wall Street investment banker but returned to Minnesota in the 1980s to take over the struggling Jefferson Lines, which his grandfather founded, as well as the family real estate business. He earned a bachelor's degree from Bates College in Maine and an MBA from the Yale School of Management.
Walz selected Zelle from a trio of finalists, with Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough and Met Council Member Deb Barber, chairwoman of the Council's Transportation Committee, also in the running.
Former Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said Zelle's experience in the public and private sectors will serve him well in his new job. "His transportation and transit experience is needed in a region that continues to struggle with how we are going to build and maintain our roadways and transit systems," he said.
Zelle served as commissioner of MnDOT for five years, overseeing what was then a $4 billion agency with some 5,000 employees. His MnDOT legacy includes the completion of several high-profile projects, including the St. Croix River bridge and the Hwy. 53 span over the Rouchleau Mine in Virginia, Minn. He also laid the groundwork for automated vehicles, and tried to broaden MnDOT's historic focus on roads and bridges to include public transportation.
Though Zelle seemed at ease in the public eye, he ran into challenges convincing some lawmakers that long-term, dedicated transportation funding — including an increase in the state gas tax — was needed to prop up the state's aging infrastructure.