The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 24, 2013

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

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

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.

But Dayton wants to start building public support for that comprehensive approach, including new revenue for highway construction and maintenance, and wants MnDOT to lead the way.

“Zelle, get out there and make the case,” the MnDOT commissioner said, paraphrasing Dayton’s instructions.

Zelle showed the Mankato group a three-minute draft video produced by MnDOT and sought  opinions and suggestions. The slickly produced video’s theme was the importance of “getting from A to B,” showing Minnesotans heading to jobs, traveling to leisure activities, transporting products, shipping farm commodities to market, connecting with family members.

It displayed the breadth of the state’s transportation system, from roads and bridges to waterways and airports to commuter trains and bike trails. And it suggested that the state needs to move from yesterday’s infrastructure to one that will serve Minnesota’s economy in the future.

“We can get there,” the voice-over states. “We’ve just got to keep moving.”

The audience provided plenty of comment. Mankato’s transit director suggested that the role of bus systems at least needed to be acknowledged, a local chamber director proposed showing the projects funded as a result of the last gas tax increase, and St. Peter Public Works Director Lew Giesking said MnDOT needs to remind Minnesotans that the transportation system is theirs and they’re responsible for preserving and improving it.

“What I think is lacking is the idea of ownership,” Giesking said.

Zelle agreed that Giesking’s message was crucial.

“We as citizens own the system and we build it,” he said.

Persuading citizens that they want to dedicate some of their dollars to the cause — and getting them to convey that message to state lawmakers — is the next challenge for Zelle and his staff.

MnDOT Communications Director Kevin Gutknecht said he wasn’t sure if Minnesotans would see 30-second versions of the video on broadcast television or if the public relations campaign would concentrate primarily on meetings across the state with local opinion leaders like the group gathered in Mankato.

“We’re working on that now,” Gutknecht said of the strategy. “... Probably sometime next summer, we’ll begin.”

Whether the campaign will focus specifically on a gas tax increase, indexing the gas tax to inflation or other revenue sources is also unknown. Zelle said most state leaders, including Dayton, like to imagine there’s some revolutionary revenue source less unpopular than the gas tax that will bring the needed dollars to the transportation system.

“On the other hand, pennies don’t really come from heaven,” Zelle said. “We have to figure it out.”