Pawlenty names new MnDOT chief

New MnDOT commissioner
Tom Sorel, the head of the Federal Highway Administration's office in Minnesota, has been named the new commissioner of transportation.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Tom Sorel has worked for the Federal Highway Administration for nearly 30 years, most notably as the federal government's liason to Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

He said one of his top duties when he starts the job next week is to restore public trust and confidence in MnDOT. He said MnDOT's image was shaken after the I-35 bridge collapsed last August.

"There's no question that the bridge collapse opened a lot of eyes," he said. "We just need to learn lessons from the experience and move forward into the future and really make sure that the decisions that we make are really be responsive to public values. And that's what I really hope to do."

Sorel didn't take a stance on the proposed Central Corridor Light Rail Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul but said transit options should be available.

MnDOT Commissioner
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau was ousted from her other position as MnDOT commissioner earlier this year, when the Minnesota State Senate did not confirm her for the post.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The bridge collapse hasn't been the only reason that MnDOT has been a punching bag during the last year of Carol Molnau's tenure.

State lawmakers argued that Molnau had mismanaged the agency, causing concerns that MnDOT wouldn't be able to maintain the state's existing roads and bridges without a massive cash infusion. The Legislature sent more money to MnDOT in the form of a gas tax increase and also sent Carol Molnau packing -- removing her from her position.

In appointing Sorel, Pawlenty is naming the first transportation commissioner in two decades who has an engineering background. Pawlenty said Sorel will be a good fit.

"He has an established record of transportation management and engineering and technical background and leadership in this area as well as a lifetime of commitment to public service and serving the public good," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty picked Sorel over two other candidates, including Acting Transportation Commissioner Bob McFarlin. McFarlin took over the post after the Senate removed Molnau from the job.

McFarlin earned some praise from lawmakers for taking quick action for closing the St. Cloud bridge after inspectors found problems with it. McFarlin was also praised for the projects proposed for the summer construction season.

"Bob's done a pretty good job of setting the table all he has to do is sit down and eat now," said Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

Murphy said MnDOT has enough money to build and maintain roads and bridges throughout the state because of the Legislature's override of the governor's transportation bill veto.

Murphy said he was impressed with Sorel's resume. And he said the Senate would likely confirm Sorel.

"I would approach this and take the 'let's not be difficult' approach," he said. "I think that Mr. Sorel brings a lot of good qualities to the table. I would hope that we can highlight those and then also let him know what direction the Legislature intends for transportation to go in our state."

DFL Congressman Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation Committee also praised Sorel's appointment. He said Sorel brings experience and expertise to the job.