by T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol reporter
Something tugged at Tom Sorel — the new Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) commissioner hesitantly described it a calling.
Such a tugging may have been a prerequisite for accepting politically the hottest agency post in St. Paul.
When Gov. Tim Pawlenty last April appointed Sorel, who previously led the Federal Highway Administration division office in Minnesota, Sorel was stepping into a political morass as twisted as the I-35W bridge girders in the Mississippi River.
Mn/DOT had not only been undergoing intense scrutiny since the collapse of the bridge — a Mn/DOT emergency manager did not return to the state for days afterwards and was subsequently fired — but a DFL committee chairman had threatened to subpoena agency documents while others pounded for Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau to resign from her leadership post at Mn/DOT.
Indeed, the Minnesota Senate ultimately refused to confirm Molnau as Mn/DOT commissioner, unceremoniously firing the lieutenant governor.
All this gave Sorel some pause.
Thought long and hard
“I thought long and hard about that,” he said about applying for the commissionership when contacted by the administration officials. “I said this before and it sounds kind of — it was kind of calling to me,” said Sorel of coming to Mn/DOT.
“In my old job I observed a lot of things happening at MnDOT. As I observed that, I felt, ‘Man, I would like to be part of a solution to some of those issues,'” he said.
“I kind took it as a calling to take the expertise I built over the years and apply it in a broader capacity,” said Sorel, 51, a resident of Woodbury.
As the new commissioner Sorel felt there were a number of things he immediately needed to address.
Going in he had expected that the bridge collapse had impacted morale at Mn/DOT.
“We were on the front page suddenly,” said Sorel. “And the things we were doing pretty darn well in the past suddenly became questioned,” he said. “I just think that’s human nature that you yourself would question yourself,” said Sorel.
“You might have some self-doubt, even though that might not be true,” said Sorel, who recently has been visiting MnDOT offices around the state..
One priority for Sorel was to “rebuild” the relationships between Mn/DOT, the Legislature, the construction industry and the public.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
“I think the (bridge) collapse really caused a lot of public trust and confidence issues,” said Sorel.
“To correct those, there isn’t an overnight solution,” said Sorel, who opined that recent bridge closings or partial closings and even the traffic delays they’ve caused might be convincing Minnesotans that those Mn/DOT guys are on the job.
“It’s a journey to gain trust back from the public, from the Legislature — to ensure that we’re going to do the right things,” said Sorel.
In addressing broader transportation topics, Sorel spoke of molding a Mn/DOT policy framework with a strong emphasis on multimodal transportation — a mix of highway, transit, others.
“There should not be one mode as stepchild to any other,” said Sorel. “I look at it as a blend. We’ve got to have the right balance,” he said of multimodal transportation
And that’s what lawmakers will be hearing from him, said Sorel.
21st century solutions
Asked what suburban commuters might expect in transportation in upcoming years, Sorel repeated a phrase he freely admits stealing from his old boss U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters — “21st century solutions for 21st century problems.”
“I really do believe that. And we look to build a highway system the solutions of years ago aren’t the solutions we need today,” he said.
Maybe that means big highway interchanges aren’t the right solutions, Sorel mused.
“Maybe it’s working with the local road system. Maybe it’s working with the local planners in developing our transportation system,” said Sorel. “The time where we can throw money at our congestion, throw money and build big roads is gone,” he said.
Sorel looks the Urban Partnership Agreement between the state the federal government — the multimodal planning along the I-35W corridor in the southern metro — as a textbook example of what might be seen in transportation planning in the future.
As a former outsider Sorel watched the epic transportation funding battles at the Legislature at a distance — he thinks everyone agreed there was a need for more funding, it was how to raise it, he said of the fierce debate.
Even with the gas tax increase and other revenue raisers lawmakers pounded through by overriding the governor last session, Sorel indicated that Mn/DOT is not awash in greenbacks.
“When you look at the bridges we’ve got to fix — rebuild or replace — and then you look at our preservation needs, quite frankly that doesn’t leave a whole lot left,” said Sorel.
“It is a great opportunity for us to do the things we need to do,” he said of the new funding. “But it’s a start,” said Sorel. “And that’s what the folks need to remember,” he said.
Sorel holds a civil engineering degree from State University of New York in Buffalo and a master in business administration from Thomas College in Maine, among other educational credentials.
Intention was to build buildings
When he went to college to study engineering, Sorel recalled, like many young engineering students his intention was to build buildings.
But once there he began to roll toward transportation, he explained.
“I think what I really enjoy is the collaboration that you need in transportation to be successful,” said Sorel.
“Working with people. Bringing parties together to build a really good transportation system,” he said.
“I’m serious about that,” he said with a laugh when asked if bringing people together didn’t involve headaches.
“I don’t know if it’s fun for me, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of it,” he said.
Passionate about safety
Sorel speaks of leaving a legacy of transportation safety and innovation at Mn/DOT. “I’m very passionate about safety,” said Sorel. “If I can help lead us to move our safety numbers in a positive way, I would view as a success for me,” he said.
Fostering a spirit of innovation at Mn/DOT not only will win the agency national recognition but positively affect Mn/DOT employees and ultimately Minnesotans, said Sorel.
Whatever the source of the tug Sorel felt, it was apparently true.
“I’m very happy here,” said Sorel of being Mn/DOT Commissioner.
Rep. Jeremy Kalin, DFL-North Branch, who serves on a House transportation committee, has positive impressions of the new commissioner.
Sorel seems straightforward — there doesn’t seem a “political lens” to the things that he talks about, opined Kalin. “I think legislators really do listen to him,” he said.
Sorel’s biggest task isn’t rebuilding the relationship with the Legislature, Kalin opined, but rather rebuilding the relationship with the public.
“He has some work to do,” said Kalin.
House Transportation Finance Committee Chairman Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, also speaks positively of Sorel. “I feel pretty good about him,” he said.
Has hands-on skills
Lieder views Sorel as experienced with bureaucracy but also having hands-on skills plus a frankness in discussing transportation funding issues — a frankness Lieder views as lacking in the Pawlenty Administration.
“He (Sorel) may get clipped,” Lieder quipped.
Bringing Sorel in has already improved morale at Mn/DOT, Lieder opined.
He has the opportunity to speak at length with Sorel about the relationship between the Legislature and Mn/DOT, explained Lieder.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a problem,” Lieder said of the future.