State transportation expert retiring after 35 years

Mike Coffey poses on an old bulldozer in the Bethel area in 2009. He's retiring from his job as Department of Transportation Southcoast Region director. (Photo courtesy Department of Transportation)

Mike Coffey poses on an old bulldozer in the Bethel area in 2009. He’s retiring at the end of August from his job as Department of Transportation Southcoast Region director. (Photo courtesy Department of Transportation)

Mike Coffey oversees state transportation systems in Southeast and Southwest Alaska. But he’ll leave that job at the end of this month.

His 35 years with the state gives him a longtime perspective on Alaska roads, highways and airports.

Mike Coffey’s spent most of his adult life in transportation.

He’s been an airport manager, maintenance superintendent, design engineer and chief of statewide maintenance and operations.  He’s lived in Juneau, Anchorage, Homer and Fairbanks.

About two years ago, he was named to a new post, director of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Southcoast Region. It was the old Southeast region, with Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians added in.

He doesn’t oversee the ferry system. But his part of the agency spends tens of millions of dollars a year on roads, highways and airports. And more are on their way.

The state Transportation Department has three regions. Southcoast is shown in green. (Map courtesy Department of Transportation)

The state Transportation Department has three regions. Southcoast is shown in green. (Map courtesy Department of Transportation)

“We still have projects going out that are adding capacity, adding lane miles, adding new facilities, which in today’s budget situation is not ideal,” he said.

And that’s the challenge. As oil revenues have crashed, the state’s been struggling to pay for what it already has. Federal funds cover much of the cost of new projects. But it can take a decade or more to get them ready to build.

Coffey said that lag time is causing problems.

“The region is more in a transition from adding capacity to the system to where we’re preserving what we actually have,” he said.

Coffey, who’s based in Juneau, said it’s a juggling act his successor will inherit.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Aurah Landau said Coffey brought a lot to the job.

“He’s put in many, many years. He’s an expert in best practices for winter maintenance and has been an incredible leader for Southcoast,” she said.

Coffey wants to share the credit.

He said he’s been proud to lead staffers who build and maintain key facilities most people use every day. One example: Earlier this summer, a traffic signal stopped working at a well-used capital city intersection.

“This was the day before the Fourth of July parade, when thousands and thousands of people were going to be heading into downtown Juneau,” he said. “This is something the public never knew about, but we had our Juneau station foreman, Casey Walker, out at that traffic signal all night long trying to get that to work, so that we did not impact the Fourth of July festivities.”

Coffey’s last day is Aug. 31. His resignation was announced Aug. 17.

He said he’s looking forward to some time off. But he’s not retiring for good.

“I don’t know what I’ll do a year or two from now, but it’s hard to imagine not being part of this industry that I absolutely love,” he said.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken hasn’t named a replacement yet.

Landau said if the job isn’t filled quickly, he’ll name an acting regional director.

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