Transportation chief asked to step down

JUNEAU — Gov. Bill Walker’s administration asked for and received state transportation commissioner Patrick Kemp’s resignation Monday following Kemp’s defense of his department’s pursuit of the Juneau access road, a Walker spokeswoman said Monday.

Spokeswoman Grace Jang said Walker insists on having commissioners aligned with his decisions and policies.

Kemp was a holdover from former Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration. He had planned to retire at the end of November but stayed on as acting commissioner after Walker was sworn in Dec. 1.

Kemp said Monday that he wasn’t given a reason for his dismissal.

“They just called and said I could go now, so I’m going,” Kemp said in a brief telephone interview.

John Binder, who has served as a deputy commissioner, was named acting commissioner, Jang said, adding that Walker plans to decide on a permanent commissioner by month’s end.

Late last month, Walker halted new, non-obligated spending on six large-scale projects, including the Juneau road and Knik Arm crossing, and asked that project managers report on the potential effects of delaying, suspending or terminating contracts. The state is facing multibillion-dollar budget deficits amid much lower than expected oil prices.

Kemp defended the Juneau road project in a response memo to Walker’s budget director dated Jan. 5 and made public last Friday. He attached a presentation given to lawmakers last year that he said showed the cost of ferry service is “highly disproportional” to the number of citizens served.

Juneau is not connected to the road system and is accessible by air or water. State-run ferries provide transportation between Juneau and other Southeast communities. Kemp, in the memo, said the cost of ferry service is a “perpetual drain” on state budgets.

“Only by intervening with initially high capital highway expenditures is this ongoing operating and capital replacement cost of ferries lessened,” he wrote.

The department also raised concerns that the state could have to repay federal funds if it ended work on the road and Knik Arm bridge before those projects are completed. 

So far, nearly $100 million in federal money has gone toward the projects. The department said the Federal Highway Administration was researching whether the federal government would need to be immediately repaid if the projects were indefinitely delayed.

The federal agency has said it expects the state to “move expeditiously” on both projects, given delays under prior governors, the department said.

Both projects are controversial. Kemp said in the memo that both represent cost-effective opportunities to improve transportation. But critics question the cost.

Jang said the letter showed that Kemp was not aligned with Walker’s priorities.

It wasn’t just the letter, she said. The administration planned to appoint a new permanent commissioner anyway, but the letter provided the timing to ask Kemp to step down, she said.

Kemp said the letter was truthful and said he thought that’s what the administration wanted. There was no editorializing, just facts, he said.

The road project would provide access further north from Juneau but still require short ferry rides to connect travelers to Haines or Skagway. The Knik Arm bridge would connect Anchorage to land near Point MacKenzie in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.