MnDOT commish discusses road ahead at local meeting

By Rachel Kytonen/Isanti County News—

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle talked about the future of transportation during a town hall meeting Dec. 5 in Cambridge.

Government officials from Isanti, Chisago, Pine, Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties, as well as members of the public, heard about the future of transportation in Minnesota and also relayed local transportation concerns and needs.

Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer welcomed Zelle to the community.

MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle visits with government officials and community members during a town hall meeting Dec. 5 in Cambridge. Photo by Rachel Kytonen
MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle visits with government officials and community members during a town hall meeting Dec. 5 in Cambridge. Photo by Rachel Kytonen

“The city of Cambridge is extremely proud to welcome you to Cambridge City Hall and to our community,” Palmer said. “All of us value the information you are presenting to us, as well as the collaborative opportunity to work together. We are all always working toward the very best for the citizens we represent, and we really are so connected. All of our roads lead to one another. These meetings are really important and critical because it is the roads we are talking about. The safety of our communities, as well as travel around the area, is really what connects us.”

Zelle, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to the position about one year ago, explained he is a third-generation owner of Jefferson Lines, a bus company started by his grandfather in 1919.

“It’s a great honor to be working with such a great governor who highly respects the traditions of MnDOT,” Zelle said. “He told me I needed to get out and talk with people around the state; not just government officials. Holding these town hall meetings has been a really great experience, and I’ve enjoyed meeting with all people. I’ve learned every community really has its own unique story and challenges.”

Zelle explained MnDOT’s mission is to have a state multimodal transportation system that maximizes the health of people, the environment and the economy.

Zelle explained a significant funding gap exists to address the near and long-term transportation needs within the state. Improvements, maintenance costs and strategic investments in its many modes yields a $50 billion gap over 20 years, of which $12 billion is needed for state roads and bridges.

“We want to make the right investment up front to get the best value,” Zelle said. “Our job is to connect communities and support businesses. We have to focus on taking care of what we have and being smart with our resources. We need to enhance our financial effectiveness. We aren’t a private business, but we can act like one and make sure we get the best return on our investment.”

As far as positioning Minnesota for the future, Zelle explained the population is expected to increase by nearly 1 million to more than 6.1 million by 2030, and the Twin Cities is expected to grow twice as much as the rest of the state.

He also explained truck freight is expected to increase by 30 percent, and baby boomers will start turning 80 in 2025 and will need more transportation options.

Zelle noted a few challenges:

• 50 percent of state highway pavements are more than 50 years old.

• 35 percent of state bridges are more than 50 years old.

• The state has 140,000 miles of roads, and 20,000 bridges.

• Minnesota has the ninth most extreme temperature variations in the nation.

• Minnesota is ranked 38th nationally for pavement condition.

• The Twin Cities will add 900,000 people by 2020.

Zelle said Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing economy in the nation.

“Our unemployment rate is lower than most other areas in the country,” Zelle said. “We have a great work force, great places to live and great recreation in the state of Minnesota.”

Zelle also noted:

• Value of freight moved in the state in 2007 totaled $1 trillion.

• Rail carries more than 240 million tons of freight.

• The state handles 480,000 tons of cargo annually.

• The average Minnesotan drives 15,000 miles per year.

• Eight million people visit Minnesota state parks annually.

• 40 million people visit the Mall of America annually.

Concerns with Highway 95

Cambridge City Engineer Todd Blank voiced concerns with congestion on Highway 95.

“Cambridge serves as a regional hub for economic growth, and we have the community college and medical center here as well,” Blank said. “It’s very important to keep transportation flowing for the health of the entire area. We did have some work done on Highway 95 east of Cambridge where four lanes were put in, and that was a huge improvement, but we still have 18-24 trains going through town each day that only increases the congestion. We still have real congestion on Highway 95 each day and we have 20,000 vehicles a day traveling on the road.”

Palmer explained to Zelle that the bridge on Highway 95 west of Cambridge is scheduled to be repaired in 2014. She voiced concerns that there aren’t any plans to increase the roadway from two lanes to four lanes. MnDOT is building the abutments to hold four lanes of traffic, but will only be constructing two lanes this year.

“The relationship between MnDOT and the city of Cambridge has always been very good during my time on city council and as a local business owner,” Palmer said. “MnDOT recognized that we needed help with the east side of Cambridge with all our development, but we do have two major highways here, along with 24-25 trains per day coming through town. The bridge, as is, has served us well the past 60-70 years, but we are replacing it without including a place for pedestrians to walk, and we aren’t putting in four lanes. Why aren’t we finishing the project to match our east side? It’ll cost us two or three times more to come back and widen it. We really need four lanes put in out there.”

Rick Olseen, working on behalf of Congressman Rick Nolan, said he could identify $100 million in transportation improvements needed for Pine, Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties.

“I think transportation is a bipartisan issue, and it should be,” Zelle said. “It’s definitely a partnership with private sectors and public sectors and it’s an area where everyone recognizes the need.”

Zelle said MnDOT remains focused on enhancing and connecting communities; supporting businesses and contributing to economic benefits of Minnesota; taking care of what it has; and carefully managing limited state resources.

For more information on MnDOT, visit

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