A key Senate committee voted Wednesday to reappoint Charlie Zelle as chair of the Metropolitan Council, the often controversial planning agency that oversees public transportation, wastewater treatment, regional parks and affordable housing in the Twin Cities metro area.
The Senate Transportation Committee approved Zelle's reappointment on a voice vote. He must still be confirmed by the full Senate, but no date has been set for a final vote.
Zelle, a 67-year-old St. Paul native, was named chair of the Met Council by Gov. Tim Walz in 2019. He has since dealt with safety issues on Metro Transit and ongoing challenges related to construction of the $2.7 billion Southwest light-rail line.
The Southwest project, which is slated to connect downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie beginning in 2027, has been plagued with delays and cost overruns, and is now being reviewed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. Though much of Southwest's planning occurred before Zelle's tenure, he has faced criticism that the Met Council lacked transparency in its handling of the project.
"The trust is lacking," said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, ranking minority member of the Transportation Committee. "I'm hearing frustration from both sides of the aisle." He added that his criticism wasn't personal.
Zelle responded that Jasinski's comments "are taken to heart. There is opportunity for improvement."
The Met Council recently announced creation of a Regional Transit Infrastructure division to provide a more "consistent and robust approach" to complicated infrastructure transit projects, like Southwest and the planned Blue Line light-rail extension to the northern suburbs.
Zelle said the new division is related to feedback from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Legislative Auditor on how to better plan and build light-rail and bus rapid transit projects. The division's executive director, who has not been named, will report to Zelle.
The Transportation omnibus bill currently being honed at the Legislature calls for a Metropolitan Governance Task Force to make recommendations on the Met Council's structure by Feb. 1, 2024. The group will likely discuss whether council members should be elected, rather than appointed by the governor.
Regarding safety issues on the existing transit system, Zelle noted that a new chief, Ernest Morales III, has been named to lead Metro Transit's police force, and that the Met Council has implemented a comprehensive safety plan. He said safety and security are top issues for the council and added that "we are making good progress."
Zelle remains chair of his family business, Jefferson Lines, a Minnesota-based intercity bus company. He said he's been advised that his position is not a conflict of interest. He stepped down as president and CEO of the company in 2012 when he was appointed MnDOT commissioner by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Zelle said he wants a second term with the Met Council to capitalize on the "complicated lessons" he's learned, particularly from the Southwest project.
"The biggest lesson is that we need to do more work at the very beginning of a project," he said, "because once it starts, it's like, 'Wow, you can't stop the train.' "