Aug. 13, 2008
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One year later: an emotional Mn/DOT remembers Aug. 1

Metro group at 35W memorial

Mn/DOT employees packed a Metro District conference room in Roseville on Aug. 1, 2008, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. The observance, at times emotional, included several speakers, a video depicting Mn/DOT's response to the collapse and a song of reflection.


Earlier in the day, employees throughout Mn/DOT heard a recorded message from Commissioner Tom Sorel and observed a moment of silence. Employees also received pins to wear in remembrance of the tragedy and in recognition of the accomplishments that have been achieved during and after the crisis.


Photo by David Gonzalez


Public meetings open discussions for updating Statewide Transportation Plan

Group of 4 people

Peggy Reichert, Investment Management (left) discusses traffic issues with (from left) Melissa Madison, director, I-494 Commuters Coalition; Bill Gardner, Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations, and Joe Orphal, a Metropolitan Airports Commission official, following the plan update session held in Eagan. Photo by Craig Wilkins

By Craig Wilkins

Mn/DOT leaders have completed a round of dialogues that will help guide an update to the agency’s 20-year State Transportation Plan.

The outreach meetings brought the public, stakeholders and Mn/DOT staff together in 11 meetings during June and July. The final meeting was held July 28 in Mankato.

Peggy Reichert, Office of Investment Management, said staff outlined Mn/DOT’s top investment priorities as well as revenue, cost and socio-economic trends related to the future of transportation.

Staff also reviewed the anticipated effects of the new bridge improvement program directed by the 2008 Legislature.

The legislation requires that Mn/DOT develop a program to repair or replace all of the fracture-critical and structurally deficient bridges in the state by 2018.

“We shared our proposed investment priorities for projected available trunk highway funding,” Reichert said.   

The priorities are based on legislative direction, recommendations from the Legislative Auditor and Mn/DOT’s policies.

“In developing priorities, we are trying to strike a balance in directing funding to a variety of needs including preservation, safety and mobility,” Reichert said.

“Mn/DOT's proposed top, but not exclusive, priority is preserving the existing highway system—bridges, pavements and other assets such as signs, signals and drainage facilities. This is consistent with the legislative direction on the bridge program, the Legislative Auditor’s findings and the department’s long-standing policy,” she said.


Commissioner Tom Sorel responds to a question during the meeting held in Rochester on updating the state's transportation plan. More than 100 people attended the public meeting. Photo by Kristine Hernandez

Other needs also require funding

Reichert said setting funding priorities to improve safety and mobility is also crucial.

“We want to reduce fatalities by applying low-cost, high-benefit safety measures such as median cable barriers, rumble strips and turn lanes.  

“We also want to mitigate congestion in the Twin Cities metro area and on interregional corridors with lane additions within available rights of way, shoulder conversions and passing lanes.

“Finally, we hope to set aside some funding for joint projects with our local partners,” she said.

Stakeholders’ priorities vary

“While most stakeholders agreed that taking care of the existing system remains a priority, some thought this is actually an essential part of ensuring safety,” Reichert said.  

Others, she said, felt that capacity improvements were critical for safety or to support local development, attract jobs or promote tourism.

“The most consistent theme we heard is that Mn/DOT needs to be an advocate for transportation, clearly identify the system needs and their funding implications,” Reichert said.

The meetings were part of the information-sharing process required to update the 20-year State Transportation Plan. The original plan was last updated in 2003.

Participants generally gave Mn/DOT good marks for the meetings’ structure and the scope of concerns they addressed.

“The meetings were well-done,” said Margaret Donahoe, director of the Transportation Alliance. “There was helpful feedback from stakeholders. The format provided a way to help us understand where Mn/DOT is going as it goes through the process of drafting and developing its update to the state plan.”

More effort needed to complete the plan’s update

Although the initial round of outreach meetings is over, much remains to complete the plan’s six-year update.

“We’re continuing to assess what we heard and how that reflects our priorities,” said Tim Henkel, Modal Planning and Program Management Division director.

“We a have great deal of work to do before we make out final investment plans,” he said.


New work zone safety radio ads created by college students to air

This summer, you may hear a few Mn/DOT public service announcements on the radio directing drivers to pay attention while driving and to slow down in work zones.

Four new radio messages were written and produced by students in a radio writing class instructed by David Schutton at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Professional actors were used to create the final product.

The messages are being distributed to radio stations statewide.

Listen to the work zone safety messages:

Or, visit


State Fair exhibit to highlight safety, technology, innovation

By Lisa Yang

Mn/DOT will have a presence this year at the Minnesota State Fair, which runs Aug. 21 through Labor Day, Sept. 1.

The theme this year is “Safety, Technology and Innovation.”

“The fair is a wonderful outreach opportunity for Mn/DOT to communicate with customers,” said Khani Sahebjam, deputy commissioner.

The exhibit this year will be in the Education Building and focus on:

  • Engineering and technology safety solutions
  • State bridge plan
  • Innovative snow and ice control methods
  • Federal Urban Partnership Agreement congestion relief program for the Interstate 35W Bridge

For more information about Mn/DOT at the fair, contact Donna Lindberg at 651/366-4268 or

Discounted state fair tickets available through Hiwayan Club

Discounted state fair tickets are offered to Hiwayan Club members. The yearly club membership fee is $4. State fair discounts include:

  • Admission is $8.
  • An admission ticket may be used for parking to save $1.
  • Ride and arcade coupons are $10 for a 20 coupon sheet.

For more information about joining the Hiwayan Club and for other state fair discounts, contact Mary Ann Hillyer at 651/366-3805 or


On the job: Skip Pitzen takes it all on and just keeps going

By Craig Wilkins

2 men

Mike Stensberg (at left) and Skip Pitzen, Land Management, share a laugh as they recall a story related to a property parcel acquired by Mn/DOT. Photo by Craig Wilkins

By 1967, Werner “Skip” Pitzen earned a college degree, married, fathered six children and served as a deputy sheriff in his native Pine County.

It was also the year Pitzen, age 39, started his career with Mn/DOT.

When he joined Mn/DOT, Pitzen transferred from the St. Paul Port Authority, which was then a state agency. He now serves as an appraisal supervisor with the Office of Land Management.

Pitzen’s other pre-Mn/DOT work experience includes working in the steel business, buying men’s clothing for a department store and becoming a real estate appraiser.

Off the clock, Pitzen pursued his passion for horses, owning and racing several thoroughbreds at his family’s farm near Pine City.

And, oh yes, he played defense for the St. Paul Saints that were once part of the now-defunct U.S. Hockey League.

Pitzen brought his energy, sense of purpose and appraisal skills to Mn/DOT at the height of the interstate highway building boom. His primary duties then were appraising commercial and industrial properties being acquired for right of way.

Now he reviews appraisals and manages projects and consultant contracts.

Pitzen was one of the first employees to work in the then-new Transportation Building in St. Paul.  

In those early days, right of way agents were often harassed by property owners, but no one bothered Pitzen, an imposing man with a no-nonsense approach to virtually everything he does.

Pitzen, who just turned 80, is still going at it full-bore.

Co-workers, retirees, friends and contractors recently surprised Pitzen with a birthday lunch in St. Paul attended by more than 60 people.

“I was really surprised,” he said. “I was surprised that there are that many people left who aren’t teed off me at me.”

You’ve been with the department for 41 years, what’s changed?

I once swore I would never use one of those computers, but now I do—and I have three at home. We can do a lot more work faster, but I still think we use more paper than ever.

And we have a lot fewer people. Once we had 88 people just doing appraisals; now we only have 83 full-time employees in the Office of Land Management.

We also have fewer projects than before and consultants now do a lot of our work.

What has stayed relatively the same?

The striving for excellence and dedication of Mn/DOT employees. People still care about what they do, despite all the changes that we’ve been through.

I’ve been a real estate supervisor since 1994. I keep track of, review and certify appraisals made in Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

What are some of the more interesting or challenging projects that you’ve worked on?

The most recent one is the Hwy 10 project in Detroit Lakes because, among other things, we had to move a section of railroad that carries 72 trains each day to realign the highway.

Building Interstate 394 in the Twin Cities metro area was also a challenge because of the magnitude of the project and the kinds of parcels we had to acquire. We worked with car dealers, big box retailers and a lot of restaurants. There were a lot of issues.

The most challenging of all may have been building I-35 in Duluth. Although part of the roadway is underground, it affected properties all over the city. We had to negotiate and acquire property that ranged from residences and churches to industrial areas and relocate five railroads from Duluth to Superior, Wis.

Do you have plans for retirement?

Well, I’d hate to come to the end of the road with so many highway projects left to go. Once I see a project start, I want to get it done.

What do you consider to be your most enduring legacy?

Since I’ve worked and lived this long, I think I’ve had a positive effect on a lot of people. That’s pretty rewarding.

Do you or a co-worker have an interesting job to share with readers? Click here to send us your ideas, and we’ll contact you for more information.

Recent employee profiles:


Federal agencies cite Ward Wheeler’s efforts to combat contract fraud

By Craig Wilkins

3 men & award

Ward Wheeler (middle) holds the award he received recognizing his work that led to prosecutions of several contractors in Minnesota who did not follow prevailing state and federal wage standards on highway projects. With him are supervisor Charles Groshens (left) and Chris Smith, a special agent with the U.S. DOT in Chicago. Photo by David Gonzalez

Ward Wheeler, who recently left Mn/DOT, earned recognition for his work that led to prosecutions of several contractors in Minnesota who did not follow prevailing state and federal wage standards on highway projects.

Wheeler served as an investigator with the Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting from November 2000 until Aug. 5.

He accepted a promotion and a new position as a senior investigator with the Department of Labor and Industry.

Wheeler received an award Aug. 5 in St. Paul from Charles Lee, Jr., the U.S. DOT’s inspector general for investigations in Washington, D.C. Chris Smith, a special agent with the U.S. DOT in Chicago, presented the award.

The award cites Wheeler’s investigative support for the FBI, the U.S. Attorneys Office and the U.S. DOT.

Lee said Wheeler’s award signals a job well done and reflects his professional attitude and commitment as well as that of his former coworkers in the Labor Compliance Unit.

Charles Groshens, unit supervisor, said he could always count on Wheeler’s professionalism.

“Whenever I assigned a case to Ward I stopped worrying about it because I knew he would get it done,” he said.  

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