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Zelle pitches statewide transportation program in Morris visit

MORRIS -- Without an increase in funding for transportation, Minnesota will not have enough dedicated transportation money to maintain the roads, bridges and transit systems that have already been built, Commissioner of Transportation Charlie Zelle told a group of citizens and elected officials during a visit to Morris last Thursday.

"Our highway and bridge system, our transit system, really isn't there just because we like concrete," said Zelle. "It's really essential to our health, our environment and our prosperity."

Zelle's visit is the first of a series planned throughout the state to build awareness for Minnesota GO, a 50 year transportation vision for the state

According to Gov. Mark Dayton's Transportation Finance Advisory Committee, there is a $50 billion gap between existing funding and the funding needed to maintain and improve Minnesota's transportation network over the next 20 years, $12 billion alone for state highways and bridges.

"Every year, more and more of the funding that we have is dedicated to maintaining our roads -- replacing pavement, rebuilding bridges," said Zelle. "At the end of that 20 years, there's actually inadequate funding to even take care of the system we have."

Although the legislature did not pass a comprehensive transportation funding program during the last legislative session, they did fund a $300 million program called Corridors of Commerce.

The program would include competitive state grants, augmented with local funding, that would target transportation routes identified as vital links for regional and statewide economic growth. Zelle said MnDOT would be releasing criteria for the program soon.

Zelle said Gov. Dayton hopes to increase funding for transportation during the next legislative session. MnDOT is in conversation with Dayton now, and Zelle said he wanted to leave all options on the table -- anything from increasing the gas tax or registration fees to adding tolls -- while trying to develop a comprehensive solution. The last time the gas tax was increased was 2008.

"I think it's more what we can do over time -- it's not just one year, it's how do we get to a pattern where we can gradually have funding match the gradually increasing cost," said Zelle. "Whatever we do, we want to make sure it's dedicated funds for transportation."

Zelle was joined by Rep. Jay McNamar and representatives from MnDOT District 4, who shared some of the upcoming road projects in the district.

McNamar emphasized the importance of good roads in rural areas, an assessment Zelle supported by noting that MnDOT needs to develop a transportation system for the entire state.

"Rural communities don't have a lot of traffic like the metro area does, but we do have a lot of truck traffic from ag and from other businesses coming through our area," said McNamar.

"We don't have enough property value to properly fund our highways, but a good highway system is essential to our economic well being, especially for our area and the rest of the state because the state does rely on our ag products to generate revenue."

Jody Martison, District 4 transportation engineer, closed the meeting with some updates on some of the road construction projects planned in the region through 2017.

In 2014, MnDOT has planned mill and overlay projects for Highway 29 north of Alexandria and Highway 27 between Hoffman and Interstate 94.

In 2015, MnDOT will move closer to Morris, with a mill and resurfacing project on Highway 9 from Highway 77 to Highway 55 and from Herman to Highway 28 in Morris. In 2017, MnDOT will return to Highway 9 to mill and surface the area between Highway 55 and Herman.

Martison acknowledged that many residents hoped that Highway 9 would get widened, but said there wasn't enough available funding to expand the project.

For more information about Minnesota GO visit

Carolyn Lange of the West Central Tribune contributed to this story.