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MnDOT boss has high hopes for the state's transportation system

WILLMAR -- Five months after being named commissioner of an agency that had little public confidence and a collapsed bridge in the Mississippi River, Tom Sorel said Thursday in Willmar that he has a "lot of hope" for the future of Minnesota's transportation system.

Part of that hope is built on the "spirit of transportation" and community involvement that is "unparalleled" in other states, said Sorel during a presentation before the policy committee of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

Sorel has taken a vow to restore public trust and confidence in the Minnesota Department of Transportation by operating the department with transparency and honesty when it comes to determining transportation needs and what it will take to fix them.

Harris Duininck, a major road contractor who had expressed frustration with past inaction for transportation funding, said Sorel's appointment to MnDOT was a "new day for transportation."

"We're going to be all about transparency and being open and honest," Sorel said. MnDOT's days of getting by with a "trust me" attitude are long gone.

A new task force mandated by the Legislature that will "pull it (MnDOT) apart" to help it run better is expected to be up and running by the end of September.

Sorel said he intends to take innovation to a "heightened level" when it comes to technical advancements in road building methods and materials that will help improve safety on the roads. Being sensitive to community values and input will also play a part in how the total transportation package is addressed in the state.

He said there are also innovative ways to look at how roads are financed. He said the private sector is waiting to get involved with financing infrastructure, which does not necessarily mean tolls.

Sorel said if he does his job as being an advocate for MnDOT's programs and employees, and if the "right solutions" for the "right problems" are tackled, then "good things will happen."

One of the problems that has been identified is the increased accident rate on state highways that feature repeated transitions from four lanes to two lanes, like state Highway 23.

Shifting lane numbers can be "confusing" to drivers and results in higher-than-average accident counts, including fatalities, said Bernard Arseneau, director of MnDOT's policy, safety and strategic initiative division.

Arseneau said studies will be conducted and new safeguards put in place that will enhance safety. Safeguards, include rumble strips, extra striping and attention-getting signs on roads and additional lighting at intersections, are expected to be put in place next summer.

Implementing safety enhancements now will give MnDOT time to look at long-term solutions to problem areas, Sorel said.

Bridges have been a focus of MnDOT in the last year, which Sorel said was the right thing to do. The state's bridges are "pretty darn safe" now, he said.

After hearing from people during outreach meetings throughout the state, including one earlier this year in Willmar, he said that focus will be shifting to a more "balanced" look at the transportation system, including transit, air and rail travel.

Sorel said the state's "tremendous appetite" for a good transportation system, and the presence of community partners and good MnDOT employees,make him "very excited about our future."