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Senators sweet on Sorel

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel tells the Senate Transportation Committee about progress his department made in the last few months. The committee gave Sorel its endorsement Thursday, asking the full Senate to confirm Sorel's appointment. Staff photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL - Perhaps the "Wedding March" would have been appropriate background music as a Minnesota Senate committee gave its blessing to the state's new transportation commissioner.

"This is as good as some marriages get," Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Thursday before his transportation committee unanimously backed Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel.

"Communications is better than in some marriages," he added about the relationship between his committee and Sorel.

The full Senate is expected to confirm Sorel soon.

The lovefest was a stark contrast to last year, when Murphy led a successful effort to fire Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau from running the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The Senate voted against Molnau last year, forcing Gov. Tim Pawlenty to pick a new transportation commissioner. His selection was Sorel, a long-time federal transportation official who has received nearly unanimous support in state government.

"You are a tremendous servant leader," Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, told Sorel, who lives in her district. "You bring out the best in people."

Murphy said under Sorel's leadership the department has become much easier to deal with.

"We have noticed a huge change in how the department has interacted with the Legislature and the public," Murphy said. "Whatever you are doing, keep doing it."

Democratic senators, in particular, complained that Molnau did not work with the committee and her department was difficult and, especially after the 2007 Interstate 35W bridge collapse, public confidence in the department fell.

Sorel said one of the goals has been to "build public trust in MnDOT."

"We need to be perceived as an organization of integrity," Sorel said.

Progress Sorel trumpeted included erecting cable barriers in the median of four-lane highways to prevent vehicles from crossing into on-coming lanes of traffic.

"We really are going to pick up the pace," he said of installing the barriers, because they save lives.

The only negative comments about Sorel came from Republican Sens. Dick Day of Owatonna and Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, who complained that Sorel has not met with them.