Duane Berentson takes office as Secretary of Transportation on May 20, 1981.

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 7/14/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7366
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On May 20, 1981, Duane Berentson (1928-2013) takes office as Secretary of Transportation, heading the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). He arrives to find that Washington State Ferries (WSF) system workers have gone on strike that morning. A state legislator specializing in transportation issues, Berentson is the first non-engineer to serve as chief executive of Washington's highway transportation program, where his service in government make him well-equipped to communicate with the legislature for WSDOT funding.

Duane Berentson was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1962, and spent 18 years representing Burlington, Skagit County. He served on the House Transportation Committee for almost his entire tenure and helped to pass enabling legislation for public transportation. Named Republican co-Speaker of the House in 1979, he was a one-time candidate for Governor in 1980. Berentson was appointed Secretary of Transportation in 1981, filling the position after William A. Bulley's retirement. Berentson retired on May 28, 1993.


While Secretary of Transportation, Berentson continued to broaden the Department of Transportation's highway and road-building focus to include mass transportation. He is credited with instilling a new sense of purpose and professionalism in the department. He established better communication with, and better effort from the Legislature for the department. Unfortunately, Berentson was beset by the woes of the troubled Issaquah class of ferries, and by the ferry system's labor issues and harassment lawsuits.

Berentson negotiated final federal funding for Interstate 90 and it was completed on his watch. He also secured federal funding to complete US 395 to the Tri-Cities. In 1990, the Seattle Downtown Transit Tunnel was finished, and Washington State Legislature approved the High Capacity Transit Act, paving the way for a regional mass transportation system to be studied. Although an accident during refurbishment work sank the Lake Washington Floating Bridge later that year, the Homer M. Hadley Floating Bridge next to it had been completed the year before. Berentson summed up his tenure: "I came in at a controversial time. There were several incidents, but it all worked out. The ferries that were delivered still function today."

Sources: Richard W. Larsen, "'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," Ibid., May 7, 1981, p. B-1; Richard W. Larsen, "Berentson Beset by Woes in New Job," Ibid., May 21, 1981, p. B-2; Gil Bailey, "Gridlock: State Faces Concrete Problem," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 1988, p. F-4; 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; Duane Berentson phone interview by Alyssa Burrows, February 10, 2005.
Note: This essay was updated on July 10, 2013.

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