DOT commissioner: Expect changes across Alaska

JUNEAU — Alaska Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken said his department would meet Alaska’s budget challenges head on “by consolidating and creating efficiencies where possible” while “striving to have minimal impacts on core services.”

Luiken’s remarks came during the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit on Tuesday, where he discussed the effects of Alaska’s $3.5 billion deficit and more specifically how the Southeast region would be affected.

One strategy is to have a more unified DOT that Luiken said will “function as a single entity instead of separate silos.”

Luiken has appointed Rob Campbell as interim Southcoast director, following Campbell’s stints coordinating in Central and Northern Alaska.

“Those two regions now cooperate and collaborate better than before,” Luiken said.

Luiken believes Campbell will be able to better unify the coastal region with the state’s other regions, as he did previously. He couldn’t say how long Campbell would be in the interim role.

Bringing the regions together is one approach, and recognizing that the different modes of transportation across the state are part of one system is another.

“The (Alaska Marine Highway System), roads and aviation all complement each other to keep Alaskans moving,” Luiken said, adding that “with this fiscal uncertainty, it’s more important than ever that we foster communication with stakeholders. The department must become better at listening.”

Such feedback will be important as tough decisions are made about cuts to services and increases to revenue streams, he said.

Though the department seeks to maximize federal funding for state projects, changes are inevitable. Speaking about long-term planning in the changing fiscal environment, Luiken emphasized a goal that decisions be responsible and “sustainable over time.”

The marine highway was discussed due to its regional importance. With the significantly smaller budget for Fiscal Year 2016, Luiken said his department “continues to consult with the administration, Legislature, (Southeast Conference) members and the Marine Transportation Advisory Board to determine what effects it may have and what future service becomes.”

The department will look at altering winter ferry schedules, and passenger fees will go up in May by about 4.5 percent. Luiken said fares should be adjusted equitably but methodically over time in a way that increases revenue without discouraging ridership.

With so many changes ahead, Luiken told the audience: “Your participation is valued as we move into these uncharted waters.”