Declaring a need to "rebuild" the Minnesota Department of Transportation's reputation, a relatively unknown federal highway manager was named Monday to lead the state agency beyond the controversies surrounding the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's appointment of Tom Sorel, the division administrator in Minnesota for the Federal Highway Administration, was greeted with surprise by some legislators and transportation officials, who nonetheless praised the selection. Sen. Steve Murphy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a MnDOT critic, said he had met Sorel for only the first time Monday but predicted he would be confirmed by the Senate.
Sorel, 51, a civil engineer, manages a 22-person federal office in Minnesota and received a presidential honor for coordinating the federal transportation response to the Aug. 1 bridge collapse.
He will assume control of the 4,400-employee state agency next week, two months after former Commissioner Carol Molnau was ousted from the job after criticism of her leadership before and following the collapse.
In announcing the appointment, Pawlenty said he had not been overly familiar with Sorel but said he emerged as the best of the three finalists for the job. The governor said Sorel's engineering background was one factor in his decision -- Molnau, the state's lieutenant governor, had been seen by critics as a political appointee -- and said Sorel's overall transportation résumé made him a "great fit" for MnDOT.
"I really hope to rebuild public trust and confidence in MnDOT," Sorel said after being introduced by the governor Monday. "I will operate with transparency when communicating. I'll work very hard at building coalitions."
In selecting Sorel, Pawlenty bypassed Bob McFarlin, a top aide to Molnau who took over as acting commissioner and then campaigned for the job. The governor said the three finalists, in addition to Sorel and McFarlin, included Robert Johns, a program director at the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.
McFarlin, who stood alongside Sorel at Monday's announcement, had been widely seen as a favorite to be named MnDOT commissioner and was praised for his quick response last month when he ordered a bridge closed in St. Cloud that had a similar design to I-35W bridge. The St. Cloud bridge was shut down after inspectors found bent gusset plates -- a problem federal investigators are probing as a possible reason for the I-35W bridge collapse.
Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said McFarlin did not appear to have the backing of many DFL legislators, who would hold the key to his confirmation because of his ties to Molnau. Several DFLers, he said, told him that McFarlin "was too close to Molnau. I think they were looking for somebody fresh."
Although Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said he supported McFarlin's bid for the job, other DFLers said they were wary. Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis said McFarlin had attempted to repair the political damage that Molnau had created with legislators but said McFarlin was still viewed as someone who was "carrying out the political agenda" for the governor.
A low-key consensus builder
Sorel, whose role following the bridge collapse did not place him in the public eye, has been with the Federal Highway Administration since the late 1970s and has a reputation as a low-key consensus builder whose style would contrast with the gruff demeanor often displayed by Molnau. In a 2004 article on meeting public expectations, Sorel wrote that once trust in a public agency is lost on one project it can spread to other projects the agency is doing.
"Once public trust and confidence are lost, they are difficult to recover," Sorel wrote.
"I found him to be a man who really wanted to do consensus-building. ... It was a cornerstone of his way about doing business," said Tom McCrossan, vice president of C.S. McCrossan, one of Minnesota's leading road and bridge contractors.
McCrossan had joined in the criticism of MnDOT -- and of Molnau -- over the process that the agency used last fall to select the builder of the new I-35W bridge.
Sorel also received praise from U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who has often feuded with the Pawlenty administration over funding priorities. "I think Tom Sorel is a good choice," he said.
"As a commissioner, he has the potential to rise above the governor and push to do what is right for Minnesota," Oberstar said.
Other critics of MnDOT also endorsed Sorel's selection. "When I called for new leadership of this department, I stated that a commissioner's credentials should radiate competence, experience and professionalism," said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, who had been particularly critical of Molnau's role in the long-delayed Wakota Bridge project. "I am very pleased."
Answering questions Monday from reporters, Sorel said he would reserve judgment on several high-profile issues, including the Central Corridor light-rail line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul. Two weeks ago, Pawlenty ignited a major squabble with DFLers and transit supporters by vetoing $70 million in state money for the project.
"In providing mobility for our public, you have to look at all options," he said. "When we're developing our programs and our projects, we have to make sure they're multimodal in nature."
An upstate New York native, Sorel has led the federal highway office in Minnesota for three years. For the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he was the liaison for federal transportation issues, involved in the effort to build infrastructure -- including a light-rail line -- for the Games.
Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388