Thorne gets warm welcome

Mike Thorne should peel off his Pendleton sweater and try a Walla Walla sweet onion, to bond with politicians east of the mountains.

That was one suggestion for the new director of Washington State Ferries, as he was introduced to public and press Monday afternoon at the Bremerton Transit Center.

“I came from a place similar to that of Eastern Washington,” Thorne acknowledged from a podium, adding, “I would hope that within the context of how we deal with the legislature, we would help people understand that ferries are more than just a regional issue, but a state and even national issue...and start melting down some of those barriers and boundaries.”

It was the first of two appearances by Thorne and state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald Monday, the second later in the afternoon at Colman Dock.

In Bremerton, the excitement was palpable among bystanders, including Kitsap lawmakers and transit officials.

Bremerton ferry terminal agent Phil Olwell said he sees betterment of the state ferries system – responsible last year for carrying 26 million riders – in Thorne’s vast political know-how and burgeoning public-service resume.

A former Oregon state senator and third-generation wheat farmer, Thorne served for 10 years as the Port of Portland’s executive director before taking on the appointment with WSF.

He will be the fourth ferry director in 11 years. WSF operates 29 vessels on 10 routes within 20 terminals, with 1,800 full-time and part-time employees.

The post had been vacant since Paul Green left in October 2000 to become the chief operating officer for L.A. World airports. Since that time, Terry McCarthy has acted as interim director.

“I hope he can build a bridge, excuse the expression, between the interests of East and West, between the stadium people in Western Washington and the growers and agriculturalists in Eastern Washington,” Olwell said. “We’ve got to come together as individuals and as communities.”

Bainbridge Island’s Alice Tawresey, who chairs the system’s tariff policy committee and served on the search committee that selected Thorne, said she hopes the new director can bridge the often-divergent interests and backgrounds of lawmakers in Olympia this year.

Tawresey said Thorne’s knowledge of the political system – “a euphemism for getting money,” she said – could be beneficial.

Thorne said he is keen on implementing cost efficiencies within WSF as well as providing outstanding customer service throughout the entire system – one of the main reasons he was hired.

“First and foremost, we need to deliver the most cost-effective service we can, and service levels must meet expectations,” he said.

MacDonald, who took office last April and also voiced concerns about customer service, said Thorne can draw on a pool of knowledge to implement cost efficiencies and secure commuter satisfaction.

After an exhaustive search, Thorne’s appointment arrives during a time of transition, when ridership has slipped and the system has struggled financially since the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax was eliminated in 2000. Ferry fares were raised by an average of 20 percent last June.

“He has a strong executive track record using innovative and business-based approaches in the public sector,” MacDonald said. “He understands customer service. He understands the maritime business. He has built transportation systems and shown how they fit together.”

The 61-year-old was the executive director for the Port of Portland for 10 years before retiring from that post last May. Before he left, his annual salary registered at $196,000.

He starts his new role as state ferries CEO immediately and takes a pay cut to do so. His annual salary at WSF is slated at $130,000.

At the time of his resignation from the Port of Portland, Thorne had said he wanted to completely focus on plans to run in the Oregon gubernatorial race in 2002. He later dropped those plans.

As port director, Thorne oversaw 750 employees, the Portland International Airport, the three general aviation airports and the marine terminals.

Thorne is credited for heading up the Portland International rebuild and renovation project and for dramatically reducing the port’s dependence on local tax dollars.

Former associates in Oregon cited a recent J.D. Powers survey in which Portland International Airport ranked second for customer satisfaction among airports of its size and first in retail opportunities.

Under Thorne’s direction, marine operations at the Portland port also “came into the black” for the first time in years, they said.

Thorne, a wheat farmer from Pendleton, served in the Oregon Senate from 1973 to 1991.

During that time, he chaired committees on agriculture and natural resources, as well as trade and economic development.

He also headed the Senate Ways and Means Committee before accepting the post at the Port of Portland.

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