Alaska's Transportation Commissioner Luiken Aims to Improve Department Efficiency Despite Budget Cuts
Marc Luiken served as Commissioner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF) earlier in the decade, under the previous state administration. Now he has returned to the post - setting goals and addressing challenges by applying a wealth of skills gained during his long military service, his work in the public sector, and his previous experience in the position.
Luiken held the position of Commissioner from December 2010 until October 2012, appointed by then-Governor Sean Parnell after serving as the Department's Deputy Commissioner for Aviation. He had joined ADOT&PF in June 2010, following his retirement from the U.S. Air Force after 29 years.
After leaving ADOT&PF in 2012, Luiken was employed as a project manager and performance coach with RLG international, a consulting firm supporting the oil industry in Alaska, and worked with ConocoPhillips and BP Exploration Alaska.
In January 2015, Governor Bill Walker named Luiken to be his Commissioner. In making the appointment, Walker commented, "He has somewhat of a shared vision I have, as far as what can be done in the Department of Transportation. Marc brings to the table leadership experience and knowledge of the department.
The ADOT&PF is responsible for planning, design and construction, as well as maintenance and operation of Alaska's transportation system, public buildings and facilities. The department oversees 242 airports, 11 ferries serving 35 communities, 5,619 miles of highway and 731 public facilities throughout the state.
Luiken was born in California; his father was in the U.S. Navy, and was stationed at the time. Both his parents were originally from Iowa, however, and the family later moved back there. After completing high school, Luiken entered the United States Air Force Academy. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Human Factors Engineering from the Academy, as well as a Master's degree in Management from Troy State University and a Master's in Strategic Studies from Air University in Alabama.
He served 29 years with the Air Force, retiring in 2010. His career as an Air Force fighter pilot took him around the world, with multiple assignments in the United Kingdom and Germany, and an assignment in Japan. He held a variety of command and staff assignments worldwide. A combat veteran, he saw service in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Southern Watch, Operation Joint Forge and Operation Enduring Freedom.
"My last Air Force assignment was in Alaska," Luiken says. "I served as the 11 AF Vice Commander at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage from October 2008 to May 2010. That's when Governor Parnell contacted me about the Deputy Commissioner of Aviation job."
He and his wife Suzanne live in Anchorage; they have five children, all of whom are Alaska residents.
Of his first tenure in the Commissioner's position, Luiken comments, "It was mostly a learning experience, since I was fairly new to transportation at this level. I learned about the processes, including the funding procedures. The experience helped lay a good foundation for the things I knew I wanted to do in this role when I came back to it.
"When I was asked to take the job again, my main goal was to find ways to transform the department and make it more performance-oriented. In the military, there is a huge focus on performance and continuous improvement. Also, with all the training opportunities available to me in the Air Force, I learned leadership skills, and I wanted to bring those skills to this job. Plus, I had also gone through a lot of military spending budget cuts, and had to learn to accomplish as much as possible with less money.
"My goal is to structure the Department in what is called "˜results-based alignment', where we look in depth at performance measures, and work to help every employee understand their role and what their job contributes to the overall operation.
"This more performance-based and continuous improvement-oriented structure will help us communicate effectively with the legislature, and to justify our budget. I think this is something all DOTs should do, but we've had to do it to provide the best transportation services available, with our budget cuts."
Working With Less Funding
Like many other states, Alaska is facing challenging budgetary times. As Luiken points out, an oil revenue-induced state deficit resulted in the Alaska State Legislature reducing government's fiscal year 2016 general fund budget by $404.1 million. These cuts affected every state agency, and the legislature directed the ADOT&PF to reduce its general fund operating budget by $34.6 million.
"The sobering reality is that we can no longer afford the same service levels from state government," Luiken states. "ADOT&PF has managed this significant reduction to the best of its ability by balancing the cuts across the entire department. The general fund reductions have impacted us in many ways; we've made hard choices and we have more difficult decisions ahead."
The state's budgetary challenges have meant the cancellation or delay of several projects. The plan to build a bridge from the city of Ketchikan to its airport on Gravina Island - a project which became notorious in news stories as the "bridge to nowhere" - has been scrapped. For another somewhat controversial plan, the Juneau Access Improvements Project, the ADOT&PF has recommended a "no build" alternative. The plan was meant to provide improved transportation to and from Juneau within the Lynn Canal corridor.
Regarding current priority projects, Luiken first cites one which he says is Governor Walker's number one infrastructure priority - the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline. "It's not a traditional transportation project," Luiken comments, "but it is definitely transportation-related. It's a project from which long-term economic impact would be realized. There's a lot of work to be done, and we will first need to get some long-term customer commitments.
"Among more traditional road improvement projects we need to complete are the Seward and Sterling Highways, roads Alaskans use to reach the recreational areas of the Kenai Peninsula. These roads were built to accommodate traffic levels of 15,000 vehicles a day, but are now averaging 40,000 vehicles daily during peak summer periods.
"Another is the Glenn Highway, which runs from Anchorage to the Mat-Su area. It is the state's highest-average-traffic-daily road, with over 50,000 vehicles a day. And Mat-Su is the state's fasting growing area."
The Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to the oil fields of the North Slope, is not a new project, but remains a critical ongoing one, Luiken says. This highway is an important supply route for the oil industry, and because of its location, much of the road is built on permafrost.
Connecting Alaska's Communities
The Alaska Marine Highway System is an integral part of the state highway infrastructure, transporting people and vehicles to coastal communities on a year-round basis. Many southeastern Alaska residents rely on the Marine Highway as their primary mode of transportation.
"One of the more unusual current Department projects, in the Kodiak/Dutch Harbor area, will replace one of our marine highway ferries, the MV Tustumena," Luiken reports. "The Tustumena is 52 years old and very much in need of replacement. This is a $240 million project which will bid this year."
Still in its early stages is an initiative that Luiken feels is critical. "The concept of connecting communities is well understood in urban areas," he comments. "But 82 percent of our communities in Alaska are not even connected to a road system. I'm looking for strategic ways to connect our rural communities. Perhaps there are ways we can group some of the small communities together and achieve some economies of scale, such as common schools, etc."
A recent project in the Yukon River area demonstrates Luiken's concept of better connections between these smaller Alaskan communities. "What I call the "˜Road to Tanana' is not what the lower 48 states would call a road," he relates. "But it was designed to connect Yukon River villages to Fairbanks, and thus to other road systems. Tanana uses the road to bring in supplies from Fairbanks, uses some of those supplies itself, and helps supply other villages along the Yukon. The road was built for about $300,000 per mile, which is inexpensive for Alaska."
The Country's Largest State
Marc Luiken points out a few facts which help to illustrate the challenges he is addressing, now that he has returned to the position of ADOT&PF Commissioner: "Only 2 percent of Alaska's land mass is accessible by road. In size, Alaska is larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined, in total land mass. On maps, Alaska is usually shown reduced in size to fit, but the state is nothing like the size maps make it out to be.
"We've seen some severe budget cuts over the past couple of years, and this has impacted our level of service across our entire system, across our very large state. We've had to find ways to be more efficient. But I truly believe that as we transform the way our department operates, will find even more ways to be efficient and still provide a high level of service."