Fed official named state transportation chief
ST. PAUL - A federal highway administrator honored for his work following the Minneapolis bridge collapse becomes Minnesota's new transportation commissioner next week.
Tom Sorel brings "an established record of transportation leadership," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Monday in announcing Sorel's appointment.
Sorel has spent three years as head of the Minnesota Federal Highway Administration office and won a federal honor for his division's response to the Aug. 1 bridge collapse.
"I really hope to rebuild public trust and confidence in MnDOT," Sorel said.
Under reporters' questioning, Sorel said the transportation department is strong, but "there is no question the bridge collapse opened a lot of eyes."
Reaction to the appointment was positive. Senators probably will confirm the 51-year-old Upstate New York native as commissioner, Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said.
U.S. House Transportation Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., praised the appointment.
"He brings experience and expertise to a position where it is truly needed," Oberstar said. "As a commissioner he has the potential to rise above the governor and push to do what is right for Minnesota. I look forward to working with him."
Oberstar and Murphy have been among Pawlenty's harshest transportation critics.
The appointment gives the Minnesota Department of Transportation a new start after it has been under siege. While Oberstar, Murphy and other Democrats have complained loudly about the lack of state transportation funding for some time, their rhetoric ramped up after the bridge collapse.
In February, senators refused to allow Carol Molnau to keep her commissioner job; she remains the elected lieutenant governor.
For the Legislature's only former county engineer, appointing an engineer is good news. Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said at least one of the top four people in the department should be an engineer, but none were when Molnau was commissioner. He also was happy that the new commissioner comes with a federal background because much of what the state does is connected to Washington actions.
"He is going to be a good fit," Lieder said.
It is the first time since the 1980s that an engineer has been in charge of MnDOT.
Sorel, who has a management degree to go with his engineering degree, said he dealt with politics when working on transportation issues before the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, a good primer for becoming a commissioner. He said he has not been a political candidate or worked on a campaign.
Pawlenty said he appointed Sorel to the post because of his 30 years of transportation experience and a civil engineering background.
On Monday, Murphy said lawmakers need to "take the let's not be difficult attitude" in dealing with Pawlenty on transportation issues. Lieder said the appointment should smooth relations.
Molnau was the first lieutenant governor in state history to also hold a commissioner's job. While commissioner, she took the lower pay given to people in that position, not the higher lieutenant governor's pay.
Molnau's assistant, Bob McFarlin, filled in since she left. He was one of three finalists for the job and Pawlenty urged Sorel to keep him on staff.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns DL Newspapers.