The joint Alaska House and Senate Transportation Committees Tuesday sent the name of Governor Sean Parnell’s pick for Transportation Commissioner, Pat Kemp, to the full legislature for confirmation.
A career DOT employee, Kemp was appointed to the top job in late December after serving as acting Commissioner since October. During his confirmation hearing he faced questions about recent changes to the Alaska Class Ferry project as well as the proposed Juneau Access road.
The administration has been criticized for the governor’s sudden decision to change the Alaska Class Project from one large 350-foot ferry to two smaller shuttle boats.
Residents of small Southeast communities are concerned the Alaska Marine Highway System won’t be able to provide reliable service with the lighter boats. But Kemp promised lawmakers a full public vetting of the new ferry design.
“People are going to like this vessel. I’m guaranteeing it,” Kemp said. “It’s going to be good, it’s going to offer more capacity, it’s going to be cheaper to operate and it’s going to be within the budget we have before us now.”
Sitka Democratic Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins asked Kemp about the administration’s failure to discuss project changes with the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board.
Kemp, who’s a highway engineer, admitted he didn’t fully understand the board’s role in providing input to the department.
“I met most of them for the first time a week or two ago, I guess, here in Juneau,” said Kemp. “They had a board meeting. And I understand the sensitivities a little bit better with the board.”
Parnell and Kemp have cited Alaska Class cost overruns as the driving force behind the design change. Originally budgeted at about $120 million, recent estimates grew to more than $150 million.
Kreiss-Tomkins asked how the administration could be certain that two shuttle ferries will be cheaper to build and maintain than one large 350-foot boat.
“The cost of a boat is not linear to its length,” Kemp said.
“When we worked with the third floor, with the governor’s office, on what to do with this over-budget project, the governor was an advocate of chopping length,” he said. “Well, we found that you could chop only so much, and pretty soon we found out you did need an engine, you did need a propulsion system, you did need the amenities.”
Kemp said he believes the two 280-foot shuttle ferries can be built for about $49.5 million dollars each.
“With the type of ferries we’re looking at now, with the simple roll on-roll off, the interior might look similar to a fast ferry, with the car deck,” he said. “They’re on, they’re off. It’s a lot simpler design. And that design also leads to lower operating costs.”
Anchorage Democratic Senator Hollis French asked how the shuttle ferries relate to the Juneau Access project. The commissioner said a new court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed road north of Juneau will include analysis of a ferry-only option. But the administration believes a road is still the best alternative.
“It’s the largest community in the nation not connected by a road,” Kemp said. “So there were significant studies, and you take the demand to travel, the flexibility, these other issues and you marry it up and the road actually came out ahead economically-wise.”
French later got Kemp to admit the shuttle ferries would be ideal for transporting cars and people between Haines and the Katzehin River, where the proposed Juneau Access road would end.
Governor Parnell included $10 million in his proposed budget for ongoing work on the project. The revised EIS is due in March or April.
Kemp is the first Alaska-born Transportation Commissioner. He’s also the first to work completely through the department’s ranks.
The House and Senate Transportation Committees voted unanimously to forward his name to the full Legislature for confirmation.