Woodbury's Sorel sees 'really good path' for MnDOT
Minnesota's transportation system hit a low point in 2007.
The state - and the nation - recoiled in shock when the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, taking 13 people's lives. The fallout left the state's transportation reputation tarnished and prompted U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to famously state that "a bridge just shouldn't fall down in the middle of America."
Things got thornier in 2008 when state senators voted to oust then-Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau just days before the Legislature moved forward on a veto override of a controversial transportation finance package.
So when it came time to install Molnau's replacement, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty turned to Tom Sorel, a Woodbury resident with a long history in the federal transportation industry.
Sorel said Pawlenty sat him down and asked where his focus would be as commissioner. He told the governor that his mission would be to rebuild the department's morale and reputation on a national level.
Senators put their support behind Sorel and approved his transportation commissioner bid in 2008.
"He stepped into a hornet's nest of political dissention and public dissatisfaction," said Steve Murphy, a former state senator who chaired the Senate's Transportation Committee.
More than four years later, Sorel leaves the position - and a department that he and others said has recaptured its reputation.
"I think we're back," Sorel said.
He pointed out that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is being sought out for advice at a national level and has recorded the highest employee satisfaction rating among state agencies.
"We're headed on a really good path," he said.
Sorel is leaving MnDOT to serve as president and CEO of AAA Minneapolis, a transition he said leaves him with "mixed emotions."
"It's been a great job," he said.
Headed toward a cliff?
Sorel leaves behind a department he said has improved, but knows won't be without problems on the horizon.
Though Sorel said the state's performance measures are tracking well - especially among bridges - and the four-year Better Roads for Better Minnesota program has been working to improve metro-area pavement conditions, those programs hinge on funding. And not all those dollars are flowing like they have in the past.
"At some point you kind of reach a cliff where you can't keep up," Sorel said. "That's what we're concerned about."
He's hoping a report set to be released later this month by the public-private Transportation Finance Advisory Committee will help identify revenue sources as others shrink. That includes the state's gasoline tax - a revenue stream that accounts for 28 percent of all Minnesota transportation funding - which was projected to decline this year by 1 percent.
Sorel said that decline is tied in part to transitions in alternative fuels. Though the gas tax "seems to work," he said other options should continue to be explored. He said that should include concepts like indexing the gas tax to inflation and mileage-based user fees that would finance transportation costs based on how much motorists drive rather than how much gas goes in the tank.
"Something needs to change," Sorel said.
Despite the turbulence ahead, Sorel insists that efforts like the "Minnesota GO" plan will leave Minnesota's state of transportation in a better place.
"It's a transformational document," he said of the plan, which aims to map out a 50-year vision for transportation in the state.
Sorel said key components include building to a maintainable scale and integrating transportation with quality of life in Minnesota.
Market research, Sorel said, has shown "clear linkage" among transportation, economic development, education, health and housing.
Proper transportation investment "has a positive impact on those other things," he said.
"That's the transformational piece of this," he added.
Sorel, who moved to Woodbury in 2005, admitted he has had to navigate some treacherous waters while charting MnDOT's course across Minnesota's political landscape.
"I'm just a transportation official," he said. "But yet that's the world I have to play in."
He said that meant learning to balance relationships with Democrats and Republicans. The best way to do that, Sorel said, was to present solutions to problems.
"They respect that," he said. "We're able to bridge that gap better than most (departments)."
His time at MnDOT has also included serving under a Republican and a Democratic governor.
"I've had the privilege to serve under two governors -- Gov. Pawlenty, who appointed me in 2008 after the 35W bridge collapse, and Gov. Dayton, who reappointed me transportation commissioner in 2010," Sorel said. "I am honored to have worked for both of these leaders."
Former state Sen. Murphy said the next transportation commissioner must be able to sell the department's efforts to the public.
"They're going to have to be the Ronald Reagan of transportation salesmanship," he said.
He and others who worked closely with Sorel during his time at the department said he was a strong captain of the ship.
"Tom Sorel is a consummate transportation professional," said Brian McClung, former deputy chief of staff for Pawlenty. "He brought to the table an in-depth understanding of how local, state and federal systems come together to provide a strong transportation infrastructure."
Qin Tang, a Woodbury woman and librarian at MnDOT, called Sorel's departure "a huge loss" for the agency.
"He is a servant leader, an encouraging, inspiring, empowering and transformational leader," she said. "He brought much needed change to the agency after the bridge collapse. "
Sorel said his move to AAA Minneapolis allows him to stay involved in traffic safety while remaining close to home. He said he turned away other out-of-state offers, including positions at the federal level.
We wanted to stay in Minnesota," Sorel said, adding that he, his wife and their 10-year-old son have set down roots in Woodbury.
His new job will be to ensure AAA Minneapolis remains "vibrant and viable" into the future.
Murphy said he figures Sorel is up to the task.
"AAA is getting a gem," he said.