DOT head braces for busy year

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2007

Leo von Scheben got a free pass from lawmakers in his first year as Department of Transportation commissioner. But 2008 will be different, and he knows it.

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He'll be on the hot seat just as Revenue Commissioner Pat Galvin was in pushing for a higher oil tax and just as Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin was in touting a natural gas pipeline plan.

Von Scheben will likely be in front of several committees defending a bill designed to raise $140 million through bond sales for road, bridge and port projects.

Lawmakers will want answers about the state's marine highway system that serves the Gulf of Alaska and they'll want accountability for how the state is spending federal money.

And they might want to hear from von Scheben on a proposed plan to bank $500 million from the state's surplus and into an interest bearing account each of the next two years.

"I think the honeymoon is over," von Scheben told The Associated Press in an interview. "I think they will be asking me the hard questions, and I will respond to the best of my ability, and if I don't have the answers I sure will get it for them.

"It's all about professional communication. You've to be able to take the hard knocks, take the beatings as they come. They have the right to ask these questions. I have got to get the answers for them. It won't be simple, but I'm still looking forward to it."

While the Legislature spent most of 2007 working on oil taxes, a natural gas pipeline proposal and an ethics reform bill, von Scheben spent the year getting acclimated to his new job and the physical landscape that features 14,788 miles of roadway to maintain.

Lawmakers pretty much left von Scheben alone so he could learn his new job after 20 years in the private sector.

Von Scheben weathered one storm when he and Gov. Sarah Palin pulled the plug on a proposed bridge connecting Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island, also known as the bridge to nowhere. It was a project backed by a federal earmark that became national symbol for wasteful spending.

When the announcement was made, several lawmakers criticized von Scheben for failing to communicate the administration's plans before the state released the news.

"I have to admit, probably one of my weakest points was dealing with the legislators," he said. "I saw 30 of them last session and I will visit the next 30. I need to blame myself; I'm going to increase the communication."

Von Scheben says that starts with sharing DOT's new plan and forward-looking mission with the Legislature. He says he's not prepared to detail the plan just yet because he hasn't shared it with Palin or her administration.

"It's not going to say, 'We are going to do better and leave it at that,"' he said. "A year from now, the Legislature will be able to say, 'What have you done?' I can say, 'Here are the goals we had and these are the ones we've completed."'

Von Scheben, 66, has been in Alaska since 1963, four years after it became the 49th state. An engineer and land surveyor, he was one of four founding partners of the Anchorage-based engineering firm USKH Inc., which also has offices in Washington and Idaho. He no longer has financial ties to his former company.

After 20 years with a firm that has 200 employees and a $25 million budget, he now runs one of the state's largest departments, featuring 3,200 employees and an annual budget of about $1.3 billion.

While it's a leap for him, the budget is not enough to cover all of the constituents' wishes.

"We deal with a variety of climate changes within the state of Alaska and the sheer building of our projects makes us unique from other states," he said. "Up north we are building over permafrost; in the Southeast, we are building over rock and timber; in Anchorage we have poor soil conditions.

"We have significant travel, say, from here to Fairbanks but we don't have a significant gas tax (eight cents per gallon)," he said. "We can't tax ourselves enough to cover all of our expenses because we don't have that many people traveling."

For now, von Scheben says, priorities revolve around Palin's bond proposal and preparing the state's roads for supporting construction of a natural gas pipeline.

That includes addressing increasing traffic congestion in the Anchorage area; long-needed road repairs; airport maintenance; and bridge safety so the state does not face the same tragedy that befell more than a dozen who died in a Minneapolis bridge collapse.

Among projects in the transportation bond bill, the state is proposing a $14 million allocation for improvements to the Dalton Highway, which runs from north of Fairbanks to the North Slope, and is likely to be a conduit for bringing gas line supplies.

Also a priority for members of the House and Senate Transpiration Committees is the fate of the Alaska Marine Highway System, whose aging fleet and rising fuel costs are causing increasing constraints.



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