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MnDOT Commissioner visits Otter Tail County, talks funding

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle believes most people understand that highway maintenance comes with a high price tag, and would be willing to pay a little more in gasoline taxes to pay for that maintenance.

“A 10 cent increase in the gasoline tax would equal about $67 per driver per year. That’s only $5.58 per month,” said Zelle, who visited Fergus Falls on Monday to speak at West Central Initiative.

The Minnesota gasoline tax is 28.5 cents per gallon, and the federal gasoline tax stands at 18.4 cents per gallon. Those dollars go toward roadway assistance along with Minnesota’s vehicle registration tax, state bonding and federal assistance.

The Otter Tail County Highway Department has under its jurisdiction 1,052 miles of highway and 142 bridges. The annual department budget is approximately $12 million. Each year, the county spends close to $6.5 million on its roadways. That seems like a lot of money, but those dollars fall short on keeping up with the projects across a county that has more land area than the state of Rhode Island.

“Just overlaying one mile of highway costs about $250,000,” said County Engineer Rick West. “A total rebuild of one mile of each highway costs an estimated $650,000.”

With this in mind, the county has two options available in future years: Implementing a half-cent sales tax, allowed by the state legislature, would raise approximately $4.2 million on an annual basis. Putting a wheelage tax in place, by adding $10 per license tab, would raise about $500,000 annually.

Zelle told Otter Tail County officials on Monday that over the next 20 years the state will need $50 billion for highways and bridges.

“The time is now to make a transportation investment,” he said. “We at MnDOT pledge efficient use of tax dollars, for today and over the long term. We’ll be prudent and cost conscious.”

The commissioner said the overall goal is to preserve the existing highway network, complete critical interconnections and obtain roadway funding through sustainable means.

“Minnesota Go” is the theme for future years as MnDOT works to ensure a viable transportation system throughout the state.

“Our state has 50 percent of pavements that are over 50 years old,” said Zelle. “Keep in mind that traffic congestion dampens our economy.”

The commissioner was appointed to his post in December 2012. Zelle formerly worked as president and CEO of Jefferson Lines, an intercity bus company with routes in 13 states from Minnesota to Texas. He was previously recognized for his work in transportation policy as a recipient of the George Rucker Award by the Community Transportation Association.

Township officials in Otter Tail County also voiced their need for financial assistance. Even though many township roads are gravel, they still need to be adequately maintained, said township board members.

This year, through contractors, MnDOT completed roadway resurfacing work along Highway 10 between Perham and New York Mills. Still going on is resurfacing on Highway 78 between Battle Lake and Perham. The project also includes reconstructing Lake Street in Battle Lake.

Among those attending the MnDOT town hall meeting Monday were County Commissioners Wayne Johnson, Doug Huebsch and Lee Rogness.

By Tom Hintgen, Otter Tail County Correspondent