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Walker reconstitutes Parnell-ousted leadership team at Transportation Department

  • Author: Pat Forgey
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 3, 2015

JUNEAU -- The top team at Gov. Bill Walker's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities will look a lot like one of those that ran the department for former Gov. Sean Parnell.

Walker had already named Marc Luiken of Anchorage, a former Parnell transportation commissioner, to replace Pat Kemp, ousted as commissioner last month.

On Tuesday, Luiken announced that Steve Hatter and Mike Neussl were being named deputy commissioners.

Luiken, Hatter and Neussl held the same jobs in the past, with Luiken serving as commissioner, Hatter serving as his deputy for aviation and Neussl his deputy for marine operations.

"It is an honor to have them rejoin my team," Luiken said as they were announced Tuesday.

The restoration of the experienced deputies was praised by key legislators, including Southeast legislators who watch over the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, co-chair of the House Transportation Committee, said that Hatter's and Neussl's background is particularly important for keeping the state's crucial transportation infrastructure operating smoothly.

"I was concerned watching some of the folks leaving the department with decades of institutional knowledge, so it's good to see people coming in with a lot of institutional knowledge," she said.

"They weren't there for decades, obviously, but that's better than starting at ground zero."

Hatter served as deputy commissioner from 2011 to 2014. Neussl had been in charge of marine operations, overseeing ferries, in 2011 and 2012.

Neussl and Luiken were let go by Parnell at the same time, without explanation but coincident with Parnell's decision to abandon work on a replacement mainline ferry and switch the effort to lower-cost "day boats" that were dubbed "Alaska-class" ferries and which would be built in Ketchikan.

When Parnell made his surprise announcement of the shift in ferry work, he also appointed a new deputy commissioner to oversee ferries but did so without consulting with the Marine Transportation Advisory Board, as called for in state statute.

Tuesday, Luiken said he "messed up" by not consulting the board but that he'd work to make sure that all relevant parties were consulted in the future.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said Neussl would be welcomed in communities served by ferries, where Neussl, a 30-year Coast Guard veteran, is highly regarded due to his past experience in the department.

Board chair Robert Venables of Haines said he talked with Luiken on Tuesday and that despite the missed consultation he's confident that the board and department will continue to work well together. And he praised Neussl's past work.

"The hire was a done deal and there is no doubt that Nuessl has an amazing (and quick) grasp of the details at play," Venables said.

Neussl joined the department Monday; Hatter is expected to join in mid-February.

Hatter will have a new, not yet fully refined role as deputy commissioner, according to the department. John Binder, deputy commissioner for aviation, will continue in that position. He served as acting commissioner prior to Luiken's appointment.

The new team takes over at a time when Alaska is facing unprecedented budget challenges, and Gov. Walker has put a halt to new work on six megaprojects the state was pursuing.

"We're looking at those large projects, where the governor, and I think rightfully so, has said, 'Let's stop and take a look at those and decide what we can do and still live within our means,' " Hughes said.

But Hughes said she wasn't yet convinced that some of those projects that fall under the Transportation Department are not worthwhile. She's open to finishing some that make sense, she said.

"There have been occasions in the past where the state has had to return federal funds, and we can't take that lightly," she said.

"I'm not ready to put the nail in the coffin of the Juneau Access road or the Knik Arm Crossing," Hughes said.

The House Transportation Committee will get a further briefing Thursday on the Knik Arm bridge when the committee continues its review of megaprojects, Hughes said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the future role of John Binder, deputy commissioner for aviation after Steve Hatter joins the department. Binder will remain in his current position.

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