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Our view: Sorel - not on fast track - is solid choice for MnDOT

With a degree in civil engineering, an MBA, three decades at the Federal Highway Administration and his current stint as head of the FHWA's Minnesota office, Tom Sorel has the perfect pedigree to lead the Minnesota Department of Transportation. S...

With a degree in civil engineering, an MBA, three decades at the Federal Highway Administration and his current stint as head of the FHWA's Minnesota office, Tom Sorel has the perfect pedigree to lead the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Sorel, who also served as the U.S. Department of Transportation's liaison during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, at 51 has a background reflective of a diligent, deliberative career unfettered by politics or fast-track opportunism -- or mostly so.

More about the fast-track business in a moment. The politics of the department, which Sorel takes over from the embattled Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, has been crying for change.

In theory, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's tapping of his 2002 and 2006 running mate for a dual role as a cabinet secretary wasn't a bad idea. Aside for predictable DFL differences with the Republican administration, Molnau's first term as MnDOT commissioner elicited few complaints -- one exception being an ill-fated plan to have contractors finance their own work to build a Twin Cities highway interchange. The contractors balked more than the administration's political foes did.

Yet eight months into Molnau's second term, the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. With the public demanding that someone be held accountable, Molnau's director of emergency response became the first head to roll after failing to return from an East Coast trip when the bridge fell. Molnau herself was the obvious next target, and in February, the DFL-dominated Senate removed her in a 44-22 party-line vote.

Sorel got the job over Bob McFarlin, the interim MnDOT commissioner and a Molnau adviser, and carries no political baggage. In fact, the only immediate concern may be that he is more bureaucrat and transportation wonk than politician.

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Writing in the FHWA's "Public Roads" magazine in July 2004, Sorel lauded the agency's process of "fast-tracking" -- a provision allowing overlapping work on different stages of a project rather than constructing each step sequentially. He cited as an example Boston's Big Dig, writing, "Fast-tracking allowed for the early opening of the I-90 segment of the artery to Logan Airport." He went on to quote Big Dig contractors that "fast-tracking saved three years of time and $1.7 billion in project costs, plus an additional $1 billion in user benefits."

The problem? Two years after Sorel's article appeared, a ceiling portion in the I-90 tunnel segment he cited collapsed, killing a motorist and shutting down the roadway for months. And subsequent reports by the nonpartisan National Academy of Engineering and the Massachusetts Inspector General's Office questioned whether any costs were saved by fast-tracking. Under fire, the contractor revised its figures to attribute as much as $730 million in cost overruns to fast-tracking on the notoriously budget-busting $14.6 billion project.

By no means is this to suggest that fast-tracking was the factor, or even a factor, in the construction negligence leading to the tunnel ceiling collapse. Nor is it fair to discount it as a preferred option on many construction projects. But sometimes -- especially in rebuilding the I-35W bridge -- a more diligent, deliberative approach is needed, as seen in the career path of Tom Sorel.

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