Area legislators to MNDOT: ‘People are frustrated’

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle addresses the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce in Rogers. Area legislators peppered Zelle about how to get on MNDOT’s project priority list. (Sun staff photo by Aaron Brom)

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle addresses the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce in Rogers. Area legislators peppered Zelle about how to get on MNDOT’s project priority list. (Sun staff photo by Aaron Brom)

Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) relays frustration about transportation funding to Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle. Listening intently is St. Michael City Administrator Steve Bot, left, who heads the chamber of commerce’s I-94 West Corridor Coalition. (Sun staff photo by Aaron Brom)

Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) relays frustration about transportation funding to Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle. Listening intently is St. Michael City Administrator Steve Bot, left, who heads the chamber of commerce’s I-94 West Corridor Coalition. (Sun staff photo by Aaron Brom)

MNDOT chief responds to pleas for I-94 funding

What does the northwest metro have to do to get on the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s radar?

That was a key question recently asked by frustrated area legislators and directed to Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) Commissioner Charlie Zelle during an I-94 West Chamber of Commerce program in Rogers. Hosting the meeting was the chamber’s I-94 West Corridor, a coalition of northwest metro cities along the Interstate 94 corridor that are lobbying for freeway expansion.

“People here are frustrated because it seems like there is neglect,” Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) told Zelle. “It seems like we’re at the pale end of any projects MNDOT has. I keep seeing resources go to the south (metro).”

Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) was equally poignant. “What can we do in this room to get higher on the priority list, and what can you do?” she asked the commissioner. Peppin suggested Zelle and MNDOT communicate the criteria of what it takes to get on the highway improvement list. “I really don’t have a clear understanding what it takes to be number one on your list.”

Zelle said 80 percent of his department’s funds are to “maintain what we’ve got.” He added, “The funding challenge isn’t just for new projects. But it’s essential to help areas where people are most frustrated. We do need to bring more clarity on where our priorities are.”

Zelle’s family started the Jefferson Lines bus company, of which he is president and CEO. He said he’s more than familiar with I-94 traffic due to his busses being stopped there on jams.

Gov. Dayton appointed him as transportation commissioner last year. His said his biggest challenge is to is to see the big picture of the whole state and what are going to be the greatest transportation needs in the next 20 years.

“I’m traveling the entire state and raising the level of consciousness,” he said. “What is the vision we really want for Minnesota?”

He said $50 billion would be invested during the next 20 years in critical connections to maintain roads and bridges.

The transportation bill last year included a down payment of $300 million for the Corridors of Commerce, Zelle said, which will address “issues of critical concern.” He said the goal is to separate criteria and potential for multiple categories of projects.

“We have more needs than we’re ever going to be able to fund,” he said. Solicitation for projects begins this month, with selection at the end of October.

“We need to go to the legislature this session and say, ‘These are the types of things we’d like to continue.’ ”

Sen. Limmer said Hwy. 610 was originally discussed during the Lyndon Johnson presidency, whereas it’s still in the planning/funding stages for eventual expansion to I-94. Limmer pleaded with Zelle to consider the safety ramifications of traffic piling up on I-94, the improvement of which is not on MNDOT’s 20-year plan.

“This is a really serious issue,” he said. “The number one role of government is safety for its citizens. It’s a project of priorities, and I don’t always see flexibility in MNDOT’s plan.”

Rep. Peppin pleaded for objectivity. “I-94 and Hwy. 610 should be high on the list but I’m not sure what the criteria is,” she said.

MNDOT’s Eric Davis said criteria includes project readiness “to help get people back to work.” He also said there needs to be a return on investment, average daily traffic standards, local support, multi-modal connections, and bond eligibility.

Zelle said the solutions are going to take “many conversations, more studies.”

In closing the meeting and thanking Zelle for his attendance, I-94 Chamber President Rhonda Baack summed it up, “We’ll continue our push.”

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