By Dan Linehan
---- — MANKATO — Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle said he gets asked a lot if he can find more money without raising taxes or fees.
“I’m still working on that,” he said with a laugh.
There’s a $12 billion gap over the next 20 years between the state’s estimate for how much money it will have and how much it will need to maintain and build the transportation network the state deserves.
Zelle, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in December, visited Mankato Monday to talk to business and education leaders to get their opinions on priorities and how to meet them.
While he didn’t recommend specific fee or tax increases, he said that more revenue will be necessary. And he didn’t seem optimistic that could happen without raising taxes.
“I guess I’m here to say you need something,” he said during a stop at this newspaper,
In the long term, Zelle said it is “probably inevitable” that transportation will be funded by a system that charges each driver based on how far he or she travels.
In the shorter term, Zelle said options include relatively simple increases to the gas tax, the motor vehicle registration tax and the motor vehicle sales tax, which together account for 61 percent of the department’s income.
Tolls, though often unpopular, are another option.
“I know it’s controversial, a lot of Minnesotans say they don’t want to see that in our state,” he said. But “we need to be facing the future with open eyes and keeping all possibilities in front of us.”
Another option is to devote sales tax money to transportation. It’s obvious that the transportation network is a boon to the economy of the state.
Likewise, “Part of the debate I’ve heard is, how does our economy in general support the transportation system.”
Though Republicans have generally opposed tax increases, Zelle said his role places him as a purveyor of facts, above the political fray.
“Sometimes I know more about the economy of a region than whose party the elected official is from,” he said. He suggested, though, that both parties “kind of come together on this issue.”
The fact that he should look for more money, not for ways to make cuts, is only rarely questioned, he said. Some people think the state should take money from other areas and spend it on transportation, he said.
Zelle, the former CEO of the bus company Jefferson Lines, said there’s a business case to be made for spending more on transportation. A consultant’s report released last week estimated a return-on-investment of between $20.7 billion and $41.9 billion on transportation spending of $12.5 billion.