The House and Senate Transportation committees, meeting for a joint session Tuesday afternoon, forwarded Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Commissioner Pat Kemp’s name to the full Alaska State Legislature after a confirmation hearing.
The committee reports will be presented to the Legislature, which will consider Kemp for confirmation to his current position. Kemp was appointed last month by Republican Gov. Sean Parnell after serving as acting commissioner through the fall of 2012.
Several senators and representatives praised Kemp, with Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, describing him as “so polite and so gentle,” and Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, her Senate counterpart, calling him “straightforward.”
“We’ve disagreed on issues, but Pat’s always been straightforward with everyone,” Egan said. “He didn’t mince — never has minced — words, and he always tells you the truth.”
Egan then told Kemp, “On behalf of my community and our district in Southeast, I’m very proud of you, and you’ll be a perfect fit.”
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said to Kemp, “I think the state is fortunate to have a man of your caliber coming back into state service. … I’ve always found you a man of your word.”
Kemp retired from the DOT&PF in 2006 after some 30 years with the department, but came out of retirement in 2011 to serve as deputy commissioner for highways and public facilities.
“I wanted to serve, and I wanted to serve for this governor,” Kemp explained, referring to Parnell. “I’m very fortunate to be in this administration, I believe.”
Last year, with the resignation of then-Commissioner Marc Luiken, Kemp became acting commissioner before being appointed to the position on a permanent basis in late December.
Some committee members, including Egan and Wilson, have voiced concern over the state’s decision to abandon plans for a 350-foot Alaska-class ferry last month in favor of procuring two smaller “shuttle ferries” officials say will be cheaper and have greater capacity. Kemp has been a leading proponent of that change.
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, noted that the design concept report for the shuttle ferries has yet to be released. He asked Kemp what level of certainty he has that the new ferries will be within the $120 million allocated for the project.
“The initial estimates we have have the boats coming in at $49.5 million apiece right now,” Kemp replied — the most detailed cost estimate a state official has thus provided for the vessels.
Kemp said the 350-foot Alaska-class ferry concept was deemed unworkable by the department after efforts to reduce the projected cost at Parnell’s request hit a dead end. He said that by starting over with a different concept, the DOT&PF is now looking at a more feasible proposal.
“It’s a lot simpler design,” said Kemp of the shuttle ferry concept. “And that design also leads to lower operating costs. And yes, we believe we can construct two of them right now for actually a little bit under $100 million.”
Pressed by Kreiss-Tomkins as to whether the DOT&PF has a set date for releasing the design concept report — which Kemp said in a Jan. 17 committee meeting would likely be done “in a week or two,” but which he acknowledged Tuesday had been pushed back — Kemp said it does not.
“I hope to get the design concept report out in a couple weeks, which will give a little bit more information,” Kemp said.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, also asked about Kemp’s involvement with the Juneau Access Road project.
Kemp, a former project manager and preconstruction engineer for the road, said that when he was first assigned to the project, he was skeptical that it could work. But he said he came to believe the road is a more economic option than the current Lynn Canal ferry routes.
“The demand to travel through that corridor is about seven times greater than what is provided now,” Kemp asserted. He said if a road was built to a proposed ferry terminal at Katzehin, the DOT&PF estimates more than 500 vehicles per day would transit between Juneau and Haines.
The Juneau Access Road project has faced legal obstacles, including a 2009 decision forcing the DOT&PF to redo its environmental impact statement for the project. Despite those challenges, Kemp said he expects the new EIS will be available later this spring, and Parnell’s proposed capital budget includes $10 million for the road.
In response to questioning from French, Kemp said the proposed shuttle ferries would be ideal for short cross-canal trips between the Katzehin terminal and Haines.
“It will incorporate the new ferries into it,” Kemp said of the road project.
Kemp also discussed his decision to reorganize the DOT&PF.
“We found we were operating in silos a little bit by assigning a deputy commissioner to a transportation mode,” said Kemp. “And we did away with that, and now we’re working as a team.”
Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Anchorage, lauded Kemp’s decision.
“I think it’s excellent that you’ve increased communication internally,” said Fairclough.
Fairclough also asked about how Kemp will handle public input into projects.
Kemp called public involvement and input “important.” However, he added, “There’s some things the public wants that we can’t do. You know, if you have a highway, if you’re going out on a project with a certain function to repave a highway, and then the public comes into a public meeting and they want a bike path on each side, they want sidewalks, they want luminaires — well, it’s a 20-mile project. Pretty soon, you’re down to a one-mile project with 19 miles of bad pavement.”
Kemp concluded, “We’re criticized sometimes for not taking into account the public’s comments, and I think the record will reflect that we very much do.”
Kreiss-Tomkins brought up last Tuesday’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board meeting, at which members chastised Kemp for not informing them ahead of the state’s pivot last month toward the shuttle ferry concept. At that meeting, Kemp apologized to the board, saying he had been unfamiliar with their role in the project.
“I thought you made a really respectful and considerate apology to the committee, and I think that was well received,” said Kreiss-Tomkins. “And I was just wondering if there are other realms of the Department of Transportation — outside highways, of course, with which you’re very familiar — that you may be similarly unfamiliar with.”
“I think I’m familiar with all modes of transportation,” Kemp replied. “Just because I was assigned deputy commissioner of highways, I don’t think it should be implied that’s all I did. … I don’t really feel I have an Achilles’ heel on any division.”
Of the DOT&PF’s advisory boards, which also include the Aviation Advisory Board and the Community and Public Transportation Advisory Board, Kemp admitted, “I didn’t quite know how far an advisory board went, to tell you the truth. … So yeah, I came up to speed a little bit with advisory boards.”
Kemp confirmed that MTAB will “continue to be an advisory board” under his reorganization.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.