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Pawlenty puts Sorel in control of highway department

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Associated Press Writer

ST. PAUL (AP) — For the first time in two decades, the leader at the Minnesota Department of Transportation will bring an engineering background to the job.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Monday picked veteran federal highway official Tom Sorel as the new state transportation commissioner. The announcement comes almost two months after the state Senate voted to remove Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau from her dual post atop the transportation agency.

"He is somebody who’s got not only the technical experience and background, but he also has management and leadership expertise both educationally and practically," Pawlenty said. "He’s going to be a great fit."

Sorel, 51, has led the Federal Highway Administration’s Minnesota office since 2005. He has worked for the federal agency for three decades and worked as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s liaison during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

His selection drew praise from highway industry insiders and a warm reception from the Senate Democrat who will oversee his confirmation. Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing wouldn’t say when he would take up the appointment, but said the Senate’s endorsement was likely.

Sorel, who holds a civil engineering degree and a master’s of business administration, will become the first MnDOT head with engineering training since Richard Braun left in 1986. He described himself as "a servant leader with a passion for transportation" who wants to rebuild trust at an agency shaken by the catastrophic Interstate 35W bridge failure last summer.

"There’s no question the bridge collapse opened a lot of eyes," Sorel said. "We just need to learn lessons from that experience and move forward into the future and really make sure the decisions we make are really being responsive to public values."


In picking Sorel, Pawlenty said he considered his technical qualifications, management skills and his outsider status. Under Molnau, the Minnesota department often clashed with the Democratic-led Legislature over construction decisions and financing.

The Republican governor passed over Bob McFarlin, who was the interim commissioner and a top adviser to Molnau. He also interviewed Bob Johns, a transportation expert at the University of Minnesota. "It was a very close call," Pawlenty said.

McFarlin stood to Sorel’s side at the news conference, but didn’t speak. He had gained the support of Murphy and other Molnau detractors during in his seven weeks in charge, partly for his quick action to close a flawed St. Cloud bridge and also for his selection of projects for the upcoming construction season.

"Bob’s done a pretty good job of setting the table," Murphy said. "Now all (Sorel) has to do is sit down and eat."

Murphy said he met Sorel for the first time Monday and hadn’t formed a deep personal opinion of him. He said he was impressed by Sorel’s credentials.

Leaders from the construction industry described Sorel as a low-key leader who strives for consensus over confrontation.

"He’s got a solid skill set that he brings to the game," said Tim Worke, a former MnDOT official who is now highway division director at Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. "He doesn’t seek out the spotlight. He focuses on results."

On that score, Pawlenty mentioned Sorel’s specialized training in conflict management during his introduction.


Sorel said it was too soon to describe specific changes or new priorities he would bring to the department. He also declined to weigh in on a funding fight over a Minneapolis-to-St. Paul light rail line, but said he philosophically supports making mass transit options available in addition to road construction.

Sorel officially takes over next Monday. He’ll earn $108,388 per year.


Brian Bakst can be reached at bbakst(at)

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