Gov. Tim Pawlenty chose wisely Monday when he opted for fresh leadership for the politically whipsawed Minnesota Department of Transportation. His appointment of Federal Highway Administration division chief Tom Sorel as transportation commissioner deserved the bipartisan praise it attracted.
Sorel, 51, seems just the sort of leader envisioned by critics of his MnDOT predecessor, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau. He's a career professional in transportation management and a civil engineer by training, with 30 years in a variety of federal agency roles.
He's apolitical, to the extent that he has never run for partisan office or worked on a political campaign. When reporters inquired about his political affiliation at Monday's news conference, Pawlenty advised him not to answer the question, then said, "We didn't ask."
Sorel has worked often enough with MnDOT professionals during his three years with the state's federal highway office to be familiar to many of them. He led the federal response to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and won a Presidential Honor award for that work -- a tribute to his managerial skill.
Yet Sorel bears no bruises from the last several years of conflict between the Legislature's majority and the Pawlenty/Molnau administration over how best to manage and pay for the state's transportation system. That conflict led in February to Molnau's ouster at the hands of the state Senate and to the enactment of a $6.6 billion, 10-year funding increase over Pawlenty's veto.
Since then, MnDOT has shown that while it may not have exhibited a willingness to ask for more money, it knows how to spend it. Acting Commissioner Robert McFarlin -- who had been Molnau's assistant and spokesman -- got high marks for the spending plans he charted in recent weeks. He also won praise for decisive action in closing the DeSoto bridge in St. Cloud when it showed signs of the same strains exhibited by the 35W bridge before it collapsed.
McFarlin, who has a public relations background, was a candidate for the commissioner's job and likely would have been acceptable to the state Senate. But his battle scars from the last several years would have impaired his ability to take on what Sorel said would be his No. 1 mission: the restoration of public confidence in MnDOT "and in the transportation system as a whole."
Those words may be as close to an acknowledgement as Minnesotans will hear from the Pawlenty administration that public trust in the agency had eroded during Molnau's tenure. Sorel's appointment does not guarantee that trust will be restored, but it's a major step in the right direction.