Can Tom Sorel, MnDOT’s Mr. Fix-it, fill big financial hole facing Minnesota’s transportation system?

Tom Sorel
Tom Sorel

Now comes the hard part for Tom Sorel.
 
When Mark Dayton invited him to stay on as commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, it was a telling confirmation of how much times have changed for the better at the agency under Sorel.

In February 2008, a DFL-dominated state Senate fired Sorel’s predecessor, Carol Molnau, after she was dogged by years of controversy over her unusual role as both MnDOT’s commissioner and Minnesota’s lieutenant governor. After the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in 2007, the agency was also caught in a blaze of charges that it failed to exercise proper diligence in monitoring bridge safety.

67Two months after Molnau got her walking papers, Gov. Tim Pawlenty tapped Sorel, a civil engineer with 28 years of experience at the Federal Highway Administration and no commitment to any political party, to succeed Molnau.

Since then, the department is widely seen as having regained the trust it lost.

Close MnDOT watchers, ranging from the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota to Transit for Livable Communities, urged DFLer Dayton to keep Sorel. The new governor quickly did so, naming him as his first commissioner and, so far, the only cabinet member he has held over from the administration of Republican Pawlenty.

And in a development applauded by many inside and beyond MnDOT, Sorel is the first engineer to lead the agency, a place where engineers have shaped the culture, since Richard Braun held the job from 1979 to 1986.

Caution: Squeezes ahead
But now, a new age of austerity has dawned at the department. MnDOT’s new 20-year plan has identified $65 billion in needed projects but only $15 billion or so in projected revenue available to carry them out. Revenues from federal and state taxes on gasoline, which boosted funding for roads for decades, are “not growing like they were,” Sorel notes. Held down by greater fuel efficiency, weak auto sales and a leveling off of vehicle miles traveled, these levies and the motor vehicle registration and sales taxes MnDOT also depends on are not expected to return to their earlier growth trajectories in the foreseeable future.

Taxpayer resistance is limiting the most obvious funding alternative: more money from general appropriations by the federal and state governments.

Fresh funding has come recently from two sources: a boost in Minnesota’s gasoline tax and federal stimulus money. In 2008, legislators passed a historic transportation bill raising $6.6 billion over 10 years, largely through gas and sales tax increases. In 2009, the federal government pumped $596 million in stimulus funds into the state for transportation projects, $502 million of it for MnDOT and city/county road work and the rest for transit projects. But this money is far short of the amount needed to close the 20-year shortfall.

The funding gap has stirred concerns, notably in the Twin Cities’ outlying suburbs, that the money will no longer be there for road projects that leaders in these communities view as necessary to ease rising congestion and lubricate further growth.

“We just can’t keep building our way out of everything,” Sorel counters. Instead, MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council have responded with a strategy that stresses preservation and maintenance of the existing road and bridge infrastructure and better transit. “We have to utilize innovative approaches. The solutions we’re putting out there look a little different from what we used to do.”

Immediately looming is a cut in MnDOT staffing because of an early retirement program. So far, 130 of the 468 eligible employees — part of an overall work force of 4,981 — have opted to retire under this year’s program. More could do so under the current offer, which expires June 30. The program requires the positions of the employees retiring to be left open long enough to pay for the benefit they receive (two years of health care insurance). After that, the agency could permanently cut the positions.

However much these retirements ultimately reduce staffing, the departures will cause MnDOT to lose “significant institutional knowledge,” says TimWorke, transportation and highway division director for the general contractors group. Sorel concedes that the agency will lose “some very experienced folks” but says the retirements will give qualified employees a chance to move up and could lead to greater efficiency.

Worke notes another challenge: keeping top managerial talent. He says 11 county transportation directors in the metro area make up to 40 percent more annually than Sorel’s $108,000. This month, MnDOT’s No. 2 executive, Khani Sahebjam, deputy commissioner and chief engineer, left after 20 years at the agency to become a regional director for HDR Inc., an Omaha engineering consulting firm. “I guarantee you he’s making more there,” says Worke.

Sorel says such pay differentials have existed for many years. MnDOT offers unique challenges, more career opportunities than county government and often more stable employment than the private sector jobs, he adds.

He is banking on greater innovation, more partnerships with business, new technology, a stress on conflict resolution, a sharper focus on planning and management practices, a more multi-model transportation plan and his lengthy experience at the highway administration to help MnDOT adjust to the tougher times.

Big job, vast system
By some key measures, heading MnDOT is like being the CEO of a large corporation. The agency’s employment has ranged from 4,553 to 5,649 over the last 15 years. It operates with an annual budget of $2.67 billion. While its largest employment concentrations are in St. Paul and Roseville, its staffers are scattered across the state.

It is responsible for maintaining U.S. and state highways and bridges — the backbone of a transportation network that is crucial to the state’s economy. Businesses depend on the system to move their goods, and most of their employees rely on it to get to and from work. The system is the nation’s fifth largest, even though the state ranks much lower by size (12th) and population (21st).

MnDOT is also involved in policy and planning for railroads, commercial waterways, aeronautics, mass transit, bicycle transportation and non-travel alternatives such as telecommuting.

The agency takes on huge, complex jobs. Last year was its busiest-ever season in the metro area for highway and bridge work, with four of 2010’s biggest projects: the I-494 Wakota Bridge across the Mississippi River from South St. Paul to Newport ($300 million); Crosstown Commons, which improved I-35W and State Highway 62 south of downtown Minneapolis ($288 million); reconstruction of I-35 in Duluth ($93 million); and “Devil’s Triangle,” along and near State Highway 169 in Brooklyn Park ($50 million).

Sorel, 54, is a native of Plattsburgh, in upstate New York near the Canadian border. He earned a civil engineering degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, an MBA from Thomas College in Maine and a certificate in conflict resolution from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He joined the Federal Highway Administration in 1978, moving 12 times to hold positions in eight states. His last move was to the Twin Cities, when he was named in 2005 to head the highway administration’s 22-person Minnesota office.

Love at first sight
Sorel grew up in a hinterland teeming with followers of the New York Yankees. He came to the Metrodome in 1989, playing shortstop for an upstate New York baseball team in town for a tournament.

“That was my first exposure to Minnesota and I fell in love with the state,” he told Qin Tang, MnDOT’s librarian, in an interview shortly after he was named to head the agency.

He loves to read and has exhorted others at MnDOT to take up his passion. His “Commissioner’s Reading Corner” features a group that meets regularly to discuss a specific book. His office publishes a list of recommended books, many of them about leadership.

Late in 2008, Sorel established an “office of the ombudsman,” reporting directly to him. He gave the job to Deb Ledvina, a longtime attorney for MnDOT who had worked in the agency’s risk management unit. In at least 18 cases, MnDOT has resolved the concerns reported to Ledvina by shifting policies or processes, or by changing or modifying decisions. “Even folks at the Legislature have used the ombudsman,” Sorel says.

Under Sorel, the department stepped up efforts for “sustainable solutions ” — for example, raising roads or designing larger culverts to mitigate flood damage. He is trying to increase public involvement in Minnesota’s “Complete Streets” program, established by the 2008 Legislature and being carried out with a broad alliance of partners. This is a part of a nation-wide movement that seeks to design safe, attractive and comfortable access to roads for pedestrians, bicyclers and public transit riders as well as motorists.

Rail plan takes a hit
Then there’s rail planning. “We were behind,” says Sorel, but MnDOT caught up in 2009 by completing its first-ever rail plan. That enabled the department to apply for federal rail grants and to integrate planning for freight and proposed passenger service.

The plan suffered a blow last fall, when Wisconsin’s new governor, Scott Walker, rejected an $810 million federal grant that would have built out the Milwaukee-Madison leg of a proposed higher-speed rail line between Chicago and the Twin Cities. MnDOT is the lead agency for planning much of the route through Wisconsin.

Walker’s move hasn’t stopped MnDOT from proceeding with planning, but ultimately the proposal cannot proceed without Wisconsin’s support because that state provides the only realistic corridors from Minnesota to the Illinois border. MnDOT is continuing its work to determine a route, but Sorel said Walker’s position has “caused us to take pause.”

Opposition to the proposal for Twin Cities-Chicago fast trains has also surfaced in Minnesota. The Republican Party’s takeover of the Legislature last year enabled the GOP to name Rep. Mike Beard to head the House Transportation Committee. Last month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s conservative columnist, Patrick McIlheran, reported that Beard opposed the proposal, quoting him as saying it’s a priority for people “who just absolutely hate the automobile” and is too pricey.

Sorel described both the takeover of the Legislature by the GOP and the swing to a Democratic governor as “pretty dramatic change … there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to go through a feeling-out process.”

He said he and Beard have talked about the rail plan. “We can work through that,” he said. “I understand where he’s coming from”

Beard comes from Shakopee in Scott County, where leaders fret that MnDOT’s strategy of expanding existing road capacity inside the I-494/694 beltway will reduce the resources needed to build roads serving their territories.

On the other hand, such public transit advocates as Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, fear deep cuts in funding for public transit in the state’s urban centers.

Some are concerned that in responding to the bridge collapse, MnDOT is spending too much on bridge maintenance relative to other needs. Sorel rejects that criticism. “We reacted pretty quickly, pretty responsibly,” to fears about bridge safety, he said. “We’re in the top five states in terms of lowest percentage of structurally deficient bridges.”

Ideas are being kicking around to ease the shortfall in funding the state’s transportation system (see related story), but figuring out how to get them into practice promises to be a long and labyrinthian journey — a delicate balancing act among many interests.

Sorel seems up to the task. He knows all about juggling acts.

“My 8-year-old son wears an Alex Rodriguez shirt and a Twins hat,” he says. “I’m a Twins fan,” but “I’m still a Yankees fan.”

Dave Beal writes about business and the economy. He can be reached at dandcbeal (at) msn (dot) com.

Related: MnDOT considering new strategies to deal with financial adversity

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Don Frey on 01/25/2011 - 07:37 pm.

    I would hope that, in spite of some conservatives disdain of any type of mass transit as “social engineering”, serious consideration is given to expanding mass transit as opposed to building or enlarging more roads. We have many miles of abandoned railroad right-of-way that could be used for transit corridors. While these rights-of-way make nice bike trails and jogging paths, they serve a much larger percentage of the population as transit corridors. MnDOT needs to act to reclaim these corridors for the benefit of ALL the public.

  2. Submitted by Qin Tang on 01/25/2011 - 10:57 pm.

    Dave,

    Thanks for writing the article.

    As a MnDOT employee, I can testify that the agency has indeed changed for the better under Sorel.

    Like so many people within and without MnDOT, I am happy to have Tom Sorel as our Commissioner. As a leader, he is well liked and respected by employees. He leads with a servant attitude, humility, confidence. When he became the MnDOT Commissioner in April 2008, the first thing he did which really impressed me was he changed the org chart and added the citizens of Minnesota and then the Governor above his name, as a reminder that he is here to serve the governor and the citizens of the state. No Commissioners before him ever did that, I think.

    Sorel is a great mentor. He trusts people and builds people up. He encourages learning, innovation and changes. And he likes and is fun too.

    We can’t ask for a better Commissioner than Sorel.

    Thanks Governor Dayton for keeping him.

  3. Submitted by David Greene on 01/26/2011 - 01:21 pm.

    Sorel really has been a good commissioner from what I see. I know people who are heavily involved in getting more racial and gender equity into the construction trades and they say Sorel has been a big reason that Mn/DOT is taking responsibility in that area now. Lots of groups recommended he be retained by Dayton for a reason.

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