Yesterday, Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel announced his resignation and his acceptance of the position of president and CEO at AAA in Minneapolis. MnDOT Deputy Commissioner Bernie Arseneau—a close confidant of Sorel—will serve as acting commissioner while Governor Mark Dayton considers a permanent appointee.
Sorel was appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty in 2008, a trying time for an agency still stinging from the I-35W bridge collapse—an event that pushed public and political scrutiny of MnDOT to an all-time high. Most people don’t pay attention to MnDOT unless something goes wrong—and the bridge collapse had just led to the ouster of then-Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau. Initially, Sorel’s job was to rebuild public trust in the agency and bring in a new focus on maintenance, repair, and safety.
Undoubtedly, he has done an excellent job of rebuilding that trust, and MnDOT has won numerous accolades for the rebuilding process. Sorel also pushed the agency to focus more on road and bridge repair, an effort that was aided significantly by new funds provided by the legislature in 2008. Sorel also urged the agency to work on more than just highways—three of his favorite phrases over the last few years have been “multimodal,” “quality of life,” and “sustainability.” His work in these areas and his strong support of Complete Streets led us to support his reappointment when Governor Dayton took office.
But MnDOT is a big agency—and change does not come overnight. Even before his reappointment by Dayton in late 2010, Sorel’s name started popping up on finalist lists for leadership roles in other places. It seemed clear that while Sorel was tackling a lot at MnDOT, he might be frustrated by the slow pace of real change.
In the end, he leaves at a time when many of his initiatives have been slowed by internal bureaucracy. He will leave some worthy lasting accomplishments, including the following:
- the beautifully and efficiently rebuilt I-35W bridge (which happened only partially under his watch)
- support for context-sensitive solutions—a way of building roads that pushes engineers to account for local context and community input while being flexible with design—leading to, among other things, a revamping of MnDOT’s road-building standards to allow more flexibility and save money
- a state transportation vision—Minnesota Go—intended to broaden the view of the need and value of transportation beyond simply moving cars fast (whether this vision will be realized will depend on the next steps, but we think Sorel’s leadership has helped move the opinion of many within MnDOT)
- a state Complete Streets law and MnDOT leadership on the issue, which would have never happened without his support (while much work is still required, lasting changes have already been made that will support more safe walking and biking)
We wish Commissioner Sorel the best; MnDOT and Minnesota will miss his vision and leadership. Going forward, we encourage Governor Dayton to appoint a commissioner that will extend and accelerate Sorel’s legacy—not hinder or slow it.