March 25, 2019
Joseph L. Perkins, who served as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) from 1995 to 2002, died at his home in Edmond, Oklahoma, at the age of 80. (He and his wife Laurie had moved from Alaska to Oklahoma in 2015.) Perkins was born in 1938 in Steelville, Missouri. He earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees in civil engineering from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy (now called the Missouri University of Science and Technology).
Perkins began his career as a U.S. Army engineer, serving two tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In the course of his military career, Perkins also went to other parts of the world to supervise a wide range of construction projects. These projects included building roads and bridges in the Dominican Republic and installing an anti-ballistic missile system in North Dakota. Perkins’ work as an Army engineer also brought him to Alaska, where he oversaw the construction of perimeter anti-ballistic sites in remote areas and the development of roads and boat harbors throughout the state.
Perkins received a large number of service medals, including two Legion of Merit awards and two Bronze Stars, during his time in the Army. He retired from the military in 1982. At the time, he was a lieutenant colonel serving as deputy commander of the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Perkins remained in Alaska after retiring from the Army. He worked for the Alaska Power Authority, helping to complete several hydroelectric projects. Perkins also served as vice president and then president of the engineering firm Frank Moolin & Associates and, in those capacities, he oversaw numerous infrastructure projects in Alaska. These projects included the construction of 120 post offices across the state and several roads in the vicinity of Anchorage.
Perkins continued to maintain strong professional and personal ties with Alaska even while he worked on various projects in South America during the late 1980s on behalf of Moolin’s parent company Ebasco. In 1995, he enthusiastically accepted Alaska Governor Tony Knowles’ offer to serve as commissioner of the state’s DOT&PF.
As commissioner, Perkins sought to further develop and enhance Alaska’s far-flung transportation network despite the budgetary restrictions of the time. In doing so, he used every possible opportunity to highlight the most pressing transportation needs of the state famously known as the Last Frontier. “Some think everything is frozen up here and we don’t need roads,” explained Perkins in a 2002 interview with the Alaska Journal of Commerce. “The more people that people know about us and our problems the easier it is on our Congressional delegation.”
Perkins also took time as commissioner to focus on all of Alaska’s major modes of transportation and not just highways. He has been credited, for example, with strengthening Alaska DOT&PF’s linkages with the railroad industry.
Perkins also assumed other major leadership roles in transportation during his tenure as Alaska DOT&PF commissioner. He was president of the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (WASHTO). In addition, Perkins was very active in the programs and priorities of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). His involvement included serving as chairman of the association’s Standing Committee on Highways (since reorganized as the Council on Highways and Streets). Perkins was also a member of the AASHTO Standing Committee on Rail Transportation (since reorganized as the Council on Rail Transportation).
Along with being involved in those activities, Perkins served on the AASHTO Executive Committee as a representative of Region IV (encompassing those states that belong to WASHTO). By the time he retired from Alaska DOT&PF late in 2002, Perkins had been elected vice president of AASHTO.
Through his service with AASHTO, Perkins worked extensively with colleagues across the United States to adopt and further improve standards for highway design and construction. Perkins also played a key role on behalf of AASHTO when it came to advocacy for the funding needs of all of the state of departments of transportation.
While testifying before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Infrastructure & Nuclear Safety (the present-day Subcommittee on Transportation & Infrastructure) in 2002, Perkins underscored those needs by describing his own state’s unique transportation requirements.
Perkins said, “The challenges faced by my DOT in Alaska are somewhat different from those in the lower 48, but just as significant. Our roads face extreme weather and geological conditions requiring more frequent repair. We have a maritime highway system served by one of the largest ocean-going ferry fleets in the Nation, a network of remote airfields, as well as Anchorage and Fairbanks International Airports, and of course the Alaska Railroad. We also have over 300 miles [482.8 kilometers] of our national highway system that is not paved.”
In the years following his retirement from Alaska DOT&PF, Perkins traveled worldwide to help with the planning of transportation infrastructure improvements in countries such as Afghanistan, Gabon, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Principe. During his leisure time, Perkins was an avid fly fisherman. He also enjoyed reading and studying history, frequently saying that he would have loved to have been both an engineer and a history professor.
For more information on Joseph L. Perkins, please check out https://mustreadalaska.com/passing-former-dot-commissioner-joe-perkins/