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Molnau will head MnDOT
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Lt. Gov.-elect Carol Molnau spoke to MnDOT employees after her selection as MnDOT commissioner. On the left is Douglas Differt, named as deputy commissioner. Gov.-elect Pawlenty is on the right. (MPR photo/Laura McCallum)
In an apparent first for state government, Minnesota's next lt. governor will head a state agency. Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty has named Carol Molnau as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Pawlenty says the appointment shows his administration won't be business as usual.

St. Paul, Minn. — During the campaign, Gov.-elect Pawlenty called his running mate a "one-woman SWAT team" who would shake up the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Now Carol Molnau will run it.

Pawlenty cited Molnau's expertise in transportation policy - as a state legislator, she chaired the House Transportation Finance Committee. And with the state facing a $4.5 billion projected budget deficit, Pawlenty says it makes financial sense to make Molnau an agency head.

"We've said that in these times, we need to be innovative, we need to be creative, and in my view, it's time for the lieutenant governor to get to work," Pawlenty said.

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Pawlenty said the job of lieutenant governor is "not the most demanding job in the world." He says Molnau will be largely free of traditional lieutenant governor duties such as ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Molnau says the state's second-in-command is much like a spare tire -- usually hidden and hopefully never needed.

"We had many lieutenant governors who were very talented people, and I don't think were used to their highest potential. This is an opportunity -- maybe unprecedented -- but an opportunity to use some talent and skills that are already existing and to build on those," she said.

Molnau will be paid her lieutenant governor salary of $78,000 a year, not the MnDOT commissioner salary of $108,000.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, says Molnau clearly knows MnDOT and transportation issues. But Johnson says he often disagrees with Molnau.

"She was part of the house majority last year that stopped the transportation funding bill that the governor and the Senate passed. And so we're back to ground zero and we need to get at it, because we've lost a year of construction now," he says.

Pawlenty and Molnau oppose raising the gas tax, and want to borrow for transportation projects. Molnau has also opposed funding for light rail and the proposed Northstar commuter rail line between St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

Transit advocates worry the prospects for transit funding are grim, with Molnau in charge of MnDOT. Lea Schuster, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, says Molnau is driven by ideology when it comes to transit. She says Northstar is a perfect example.

"To add two more lanes of highway along that corridor, which is what would be needed to take the same share as the Northstar commuter rail line, would cost at least three times more than to build the rail line," according to Schuster.

Molnau and Pawlenty say they're not opposed to transit. But Pawlenty notes that 95 percent of Minnesotans get around by car, and the focus of his transportation plan will be roads and bridges. He says transit must be cost-effective.

"It's not going to be a roads-only approach," he says. "There will be a vision for transportation more broadly including transit. But we want it to be smart transit, we don't want it to be stupid transit."

Pawlenty also appointed engineer Doug Differt as deputy MnDOT commissioner, a move that may have been designed to ease concerns about having an industry outsider lead MnDOT. Differt worked for MnDOT for more than 30 years, and now works for URS Corporation, the nation's largest design firm.

Pawlenty called Differt the "Donald Rumsfeld of transportation policy. He's coming back to put a capstone on his career because he believes in this goal: making the Minnesota Department of Transportation once again the best Department of Transportation in the country."

MnDOT employees who came to hear Pawlenty's appointments applauded when Differt's name was announced. Employees say MnDOT staffers are nervous about Molnau's appointment.

The executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, Fred Corrigan, says Pawlenty must have been aware of their concerns by also naming Differt, who Corrigan said is highly respected in the industry.

"The governor was involved in picking this team, both members of this team, and I think that sends a very strong message to the department personnel that this governor's interested in who they are and what they do, and he's going to stick by them and work with them," according to Corrigan.

Pawlenty says Differt would be an excellent candidate to head MnDOT, if Molnau decides to step aside at some point. He says he hasn't decided how long he wants Molnau to serve as commissioner.

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