The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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April 24, 2013

Transportation department's newest job: Sell public on value of more spending

MANKATO — In the next few months, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s traditional list of duties — including “road maintenance,” “bridge construction,” “snow removal” and “strategic planning” — will be expanded to include “marketing and sales” and  “investment management.”

Specifically, MnDOT will be working to persuade Minnesotans that their transportation system is vital to the state’s future prosperity and that a gas tax increase or other infusion of new funding is required to maintain and improve it.

“We’ve been kind of given the green light ...,” said MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle at a meeting in Mankato Wednesday with south-central Minnesota civic and business leaders. “‘Go out and make the case.’”

It’s a strikingly different position than the agency was in under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who not only didn’t promote the need for an on-going increase in highway funding but vetoed legislative attempts to boost the gas tax. MnDOT during Pawlenty’s eight years in office conceded that the needs of the state’s road and bridge system outstripped the revenue but didn’t pitch any long-term solutions for the funding gap.

“We’ve not been in a position to go out and tell the story (previously),” said Zelle, who took over the top MnDOT spot earlier this year.

That’s changing under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, Zelle told the group gathered at MnDOT’s district headquarters in Mankato, even though the governor is nixing any gas tax increase during the current legislative session.

Dayton is proposing large tax increases on high-income Minnesotans and tobacco users to eliminate a state budget shortfall and to boost funding in spending areas he feels were neglected during Pawlenty’s tenure. Because of those tax increases, Dayton doesn’t believe a gas tax hike is politically feasible in the current session — which is expected to conclude in about four weeks, Zelle said. The governor also wants any increase in the fuel tax to be part of a comprehensive plan to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure rather than a short-term fix.

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