Berentson, Duane (1928-2013)

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 7/06/2005
  • Essay 7367
Duane Berentson served for 18 years (1962-1980) as a Washington state legislator representing Burlington, Skagit County, and specializing in transportation issues. In 1981, he became the first non-engineer to serve as chief executive of Washington’s highway transportation program, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Berentson served as Secretary of Transportation for 12 years, until 1993.

Coach and Teacher Turned Legislator

Duane Berentson was born on November 22, 1928. A native of Anacortes, he met his future wife, Joanne Hawkings, in high school. He graduated from Pacific Lutheran University with a degree in Biology, and did graduate work at the University of Washington and at Western Washington University.

He then became a biology and journalism teacher at Burlington Edison High School in Skagit County. He also served as athletic director and coach of the basketball team, which he led to the 1959 state finals. He reflected, "The last year I coached we played Stadium High School of Tacoma for the state championship (and lost). I thought things would never get any better and got into investment counseling" (Bailey).

Berentson’s older brother, Buehl Berentson (1925-2007), who worked for U.S. Representative Jack Westland (1904-1982) of Everett, convinced Berentson to run for a Washington State House of Representatives seat, saying he had had a good chance of winning due to the name-recognition he had due to the 1959 basketball tournament run. Berentson was elected in 1962, and served for 18 years in the State Legislature (1962-1980), representing the city of Burlington, Skagit County as a "moderate Republican."

Berentson's Transportation Focus

Shortly after he began, he was assigned to the House Transportation Committee. He remained on the committee for his entire career as a legislator, also serving as its chair. Later he served as secretary of the Legislative Transportation Committee. He helped to pass budget enabling legislation for public transportation during this time. Berentson was named Republican co-Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1979, serving with Democrat John Bagnariol (ca. 1932-2009) at a time when the House had 49-49 Republican-Democrat legislative split.

In 1980, Berentson left the Legislature to make a run for the governorship of Washington. He lost to John Spellman in the primary, but that November when Spellman became governor, he hired Berentson as his liaison to the Legislature, a position Berentson held for four months before the Transportation Commission hired him as WSDOT's new Secretary of Transportation after a nation-wide search.

Berentson was the first non-engineer head of WSDOT. About this he said, “Sure, there was concern in the beginning, but I said I wouldn’t pretend to be an engineer if they [his upper-management people] didn’t pretend to be an administrator” (Interview).

Before arriving for his first day in his new position, the Washington State Ferries (WSF) system was hit by a wildcat strike. A few hours after taking office, he learned that a citizen’s initiative had been filed to roll back the new $170 million package of higher gas taxes and motor vehicle fees funding WSDOT, a package he had worked very hard to achieve in Legislature as Spellman’s liaison. Although the initiative failed and the ferry strike (a struggle between the ferry system and the unions), ended quickly, his tenure as department head would be beset by troubles not of his own making.

Ferry Trouble

Under orders from the Legislature, the Transportation Commission signed a $105.8 million state contract for six new ferries with a local company in 1977 while William Bulley headed the department. The new ferries delivered by Marine Power and Equipment Company, named the “Issaquah class,” had computer-operated steering and stopping mechanisms that failed repeatedly, causing many dock rammings and thousands of dollars in ferry and dock damages and repairs to the ferries’ operating systems. In 1981, Marine Power filed a $32 million lawsuit against the state, claiming that the State had required extra work, delayed or refused payments, and had meddled in the contract. Shortly afterward, the State filed a $28 million counter-suit, claiming the ferries were riddled with design faults and safety problems, which would cost $28 million to repair.

The State settled with Marine Power in 1985 for $8.4 million, but only after paying $6.4 million in legal fees. Marine Power declared bankruptcy in 1986, but the state received its settlement because the payments were covered by a bonding company. All the trouble with the new ferries and legal issues kept Berentson embroiled in WSF scandal from day one through his tenure as WDSOT department head. Marine Power was criticized for taking a $29.28 million profit, or 27 percent, when the going profit margin on other ship building companies was 2 to 4 percent, and WSDOT was criticized as mismanaging the contract and bowing to political pressure, allowing Marine Power to skirt contract specifications. Berentson said in 2005, “There were several incidents, but it all worked out -- there was court action and settlements, but we came out all right. The boats delivered still function today” (Interview).

Funding, Sinking, and Slander

In the funding department, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Turner removed the WSDOT tolls from the Hood Canal Bridge in August 1985, leaving a $5.2 million hole in the Washington State Ferries budget. The Legislature rejected a gas-tax hike in 1987 and 1988, and failed to make permanent WSF’s dedicated 0.10 surcharge on the motor vehicle excise tax, so it expired December 31, 1990, causing the ferry system to lose $8 million over the next two years. In a mini-coup in 1989, the Puget Sound Council of Regional Governments attempted to assume control over state and federal transportation money from WDSOT in the counties it represented, and in 1990, the Legislature demanded WSDOT rein in the wildly escalating ferry renovation costs.

According to Berentson, although these factors drew from department funds, there was little to no problem getting necessary things done, and morale in the department was good. “Along the way I felt that we were always viewed as suspect because we had a dedicated funding source -- we were looked upon as the Pentagon of the State” (Interview).

More bad news followed. The Lake Washington Floating Bridge (The Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge) sank after a storm during refurbishment work on November 25, 1990. In 1991, shortly after the Democratic Speaker of the House, Joe King, suggested that Berentson leave his position (citing problems with accounting, engineering, and contracting procedures), Berentson learned of a number of sexual and racial harassment suits against Nicholas Tracy, the former general manager of WSF. WSDOT paid one of the women a $275,000 settlement.

On a positive note, even though a very high percentage of the WSDOT budget still went for roads and highways, the thinking in WSDOT began to turn in regard to multi-modal and mass transportation. The Legislature approved the High Capacity Transit Act in 1990, paving the way for a regional transit system to be studied, and it also made legal three new taxes to pay for a regional system. That year WSDOT joined the Joint Regional Policy Committee for High-Capacity Transportation, along with King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties. The State had already begun putting money into building park-and-ride lots, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the freeways, and local transit districts.

Kudos and Accomplishments

Seattle Post intelligencer reporter Shelby Scates had this to say about Berentson’s time as head of the department: “Most remarkable was his switch in DOT emphasis from roads to mass transit. Imagine turning an ARCO tanker 90 degrees with a lifeboat oar. Berentson’s own change is a credit to his ability to learn and compromise; a political instinct to reach out, make contact and feel the public will -- a talent lacking in his engineer predecessors” ("State Transportation Head"). In the same article, former Seattle City Councilman Paul Kraabel said: “There would have been no legislative action on regional mass transit if Berentson had opposed it. Moreover, there wouldn’t have been any such legislation if Duane hadn’t worked for it behind the scenes for its passage.”

As Secretary of Transportation for WSDOT, Berentson is credited for instilling a new sense of purpose and professionalism in the department. He overhauled the financial management of the department and helped to reestablish confidence lost through past difficulties. Berentson was also able to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars of federal transportation money above Washington’s usual allotment, and created a strong relationship with the Washington State Legislature, which put extra effort into getting more funding for the department.

Representative George Walk of Puyallup, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said in 1988, “He has brought a whole new perspective to the department ... and made it truly a department of transportation. I don’t think we could have had a better person [for the job] (Bailey).

During Berentson's watch, the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel was finally completed after many years of work and downtown traffic disruption. But his biggest accomplishments were the resolution of the federal funding hang-up that was keeping Interstate-90 from being completed through Eastern Washington and downtown Seattle, the funding of State Route 395 to the Tri-Cities, and the opening of the second I-90 floating bridge between Mercer Island and Seattle in 1989 (renamed the Homer M. Hadley Memorial Floating Bridge in 1993). "We have taken our lumps on the sinking of the bridge, and the ferry system battle has not been a bowl of cherries to run," Berentson said in a 1992 Seattle Post Intelligencer article ("End of the Road...").

Berentson felt he had done his time and retired after 12 years with the department on May 28, 1993. In his retirement he did some consulting and enjoyed playing golf. Berentson died in July 2013, survived by his wife Joanne, their five children, 15 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.

Sources: “’We are Drifting,’ Says New Candidate,” The Seattle Times, April 14, 1980, p. B-1; Richard W. Larsen, “Berentson’s Political Retirement May be Short-Lived,” The Seattle Times, May 7, 1981, p. B-1; Richard W. Larsen, “Berentson Beset by Woes in New Job,” The Seattle Times, May 21, 1981, p. B); Walter Hatch and Peyton Whitely, “State Settles Suit for $8 Million,” The Seattle Times, June 25, 1985, p. B-1; "Marshall Wilson, Judge Dismisses All Lawsuits Filed by State, Ferry Building Firm," Ibid., July 27, 1985, p. A-14); Walter Hatch, “Key Lawmaker Fears Ferry ‘Cover-Up’,” Ibid., August 1, 1985, p. E-1; John De Yonge, “Berentson has Role in State Ferry Tale,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, January 27, 1986, p. A-9; Walter Hatch, “Marine Power Debt to State is Covered, The Seattle Times, February 18, 1986, p. B-1; Gil Bailey, “Berentson in Squeeze over Ferry Supoena,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, April 3, 1986; Mary Ann Gwinn, “Marine Power Jailings Seen as Too Tough and a Warning,” The Seattle Times, April 11, 1987, p. A-5; Gil Bailey, “Gridlock: State Faces Concrete Problem,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 1988, p. F-4; Shelby Scates, “State Transportation Head Sees Light Rail Down the Road,” Ibid. March 1, 1988, p. A-8; Gil Bailey, “New Ferries are Left High and Dry Without Funding,” Ibid., May 23, 1989, p. B-1; Scott Sunde and Larry Werner, “Berentson ‘Probably’ Should Go, King Says,” Ibid., January 10, 1991, p. B-1; Shelby Scates, “DOT Runs to Catch Ride on State Rail-transit Bandwagon,” Ibid., January 31, 1991, p. A-12; Neil Modie and Karen West, “Berentson Defends his Agency’s Handling of Harrassment Claims,” Ibid., November 1, 1991, p. E-1; Mark Higgins, “End of the Road for Berentson, Speculation Ends: State Transportation Secretary to Retire,” Ibid., October 27, 1992, p. A-1; Shelby Scates, “Reformed Highwayman Retires,” Ibid., November 29, 1992, p. D-2; Mark Higgins, “End of Berentson Era, Transportation Chief Retires after Long, High-Profile Career,” Ibid., May 31, 1993, p. B-1; Duane Berentson phone interview by Alyssa Burrows, February 2, 2005; Alyssa Burrows phone interview with Duane Berentson, February 10, 2005; "Duane Lyman Berentson (1928-2013)," Skagit Valley Herald, July 9, 2013 (
Note: This essay was updated on November 19, 2007, and on July 10, 2013, and corrected on July 24, 2012.

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