Minnesota DOT Commissioner Zelle Builds on Tradition of Innovation
Building on a tradition of innovation and quality management, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) Commissioner Charles A. Zelle brings a foundation in business and a dedication to serve the people of the state.
"Transportation is a top-tier issue in the state of Minnesota," Zelle says. "I feel good about advancing our multimodal planning, our financial efficiency and our customer-focused approach toward providing our service."
The agency manages and maintains the state's multimodal transportation system, with a $3 billion annual budget and 5,000 employees. In addition to roads, the system includes rail, transit, aviation and waterways. MnDOT also has freight and passenger rail, pedestrian and bike plans.
"All of the modes of transportation are there to support the health of our people and the economy," Zelle adds. "It's about healthy environments and a prosperity Minnesota enjoys."
One of the largest challenges he faces is the undercapitalization of infrastructure. He has been making the case for improvements and changing the mindset about user fees so people see the value in investing. He reports more bipartisan support.
"We're going to be smart about taxpayer funds, be prudent and stretch those dollars like any business person would," Zelle says. "But if we do not have the capital required, we will pay a bigger price as an economy and state."
A private group is planning high-speed rail service from the Twin Cities to Rochester, Minnesota. MnDOT will assess its merits and whether it's a responsible endeavor.
"It is intriguing, and we are taking a close look at it," Zelle says. "Any investor that says it's interested in spending $4.5 billion in your state, we take seriously."
Minnesota has few toll roads. It has a few managed lanes to enhance traffic flow. MnDOT is open to public-private partnerships but has not worked with a consortium to build and operate a toll road.
"We have to be smart about what is in the best interest in the community and the taxpayers," Zelle reports. "My biggest fear would be to sell a road to benefit a short-term budget, but it creates a bigger cost down the road in future years."
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton appointed Zelle commissioner in 2012. He began in the position in January 2013. Prior to that he had served on the Governor's Transportation Finance Advisory Committee and as President and CEO of Jefferson Lines, an intercity bus company with routes from Minnesota to Texas. He remains chair of the Jefferson Lines Board of Directors and recuses himself from any department business with the bus company.
"Running a bus service is great training for anything," Zelle says. "Organizations are human enterprises and that requires leadership and good management."
He mentions that bus businesses thrive when connected to their communities and customers, so he is now shifting MnDOT to be more responsive to the people of Minnesota. He calls the culture at MnDOT familiar and comfortable.
"Early on, my goal was to focus on our financial effectiveness, by measuring the benefits, managing assets and providing value to our communities," Zelle says.
Blending a strong vision with a collaborative leadership style, Zelle gets things done while building a strong team.
"I like to reward and help promote talent within the organization," Zelle says. "My job is to articulate a clear vision and help the teams enjoy working together to achieve that mission."
Zelle has made cultural diversity a priority in the department. All of the managers have received training in cultural competency and in helping to recruit and retain people from different races, cultures and underrepresented communities.
"Our population in Minnesota is changing," Zelle explains. "We need to be understanding and prepare our future workforce."
Connecting with the Community
A Minnesota native, Zelle has a strong commitment to his community, actively serving in a variety of positions, including Chairman of the Board of the Jerome Foundation and Member of the Board for the Guthrie Theater.
"Even though I am new to MnDOT, I am not new to the mayors in the metros and CEOs in the business community, who I have relied on to build a growing consensus that transportation matters," Zelle says. "I cannot imagine being in this position and not being really connected in Minnesota."
Zelle has received recognition for his transportation policy work, including the George Rucker Award by the Community Transportation Association in 2009 and the Ray L. Lappegaard Distinguished Service Award by Center of Transportation Studies in 2012.
Public safety has been a priority. After 10 years of reduced fatalities, the state has seen an increase in highway deaths. Zelle is working to bring that down with the "Toward Zero Deaths" program, an interdisciplinary approach to reducing traffic crashes and injuries. That may include reconfiguring dangerous intersections, calling attention to the need to drive safely in work zones and law enforcement to reduce driver aggression.
Contracting Out Projects
MnDOT works closely with the contracting and engineering community to get roads and bridges built. It incentivizes innovative ways to accelerate the project time and reduce costs. It uses design-build delivery.
Some of the state's more complicated projects entail building a new low-profile St. Croix bridge to protect the St Croix River Valley, moving a road off of an active old mining pit, and restoring a historic bridge in Winona.
The $580 million St. Croix Crossing will replace the 80-year-old Stillwater lift bridge with a four-lane bridge, connecting Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, and St. Joseph, Wisconsin. The two states will split the cost of constructing the precast concrete segmental bridge.
The $156 million relocation and reconstruction of Highway 53 between Eveleth and Virginia was necessitated by a deal MnDOT made 50 years ago with a mining company that the state would move the road with three years notice if needed. In 2010, the company notified MnDOT the road needed to go. The state has acquired rights this time, so it will not have to move the road again. Zelle describes the project as a geotechnically complicated project. The job remains on time and within budget.
"We're building a bridge going over a mine pit, with 200-foot high piers," Zelle says. "It will be the tallest bridge in Minnesota. It's an extraordinary structure."
The $150 million Highway 43 Bridge project in Winona, Minnesota, consists of a rehabilitation of the existing bridge and construction of a new permanent bridge immediately upstream, crossing the Mississippi River.
"It would have been less expensive to tear it down, but we are respecting the history," Zelle says.
Additional projects are taking place across the state. "We have had some really interesting projects," Zelle concludes.