Ferries have a boss, perhaps a champion

With ferry system employees and labor officials arrayed around the room, and the question of ferry system privatization before him, there was only one right answer. Mike Thorne found it.

“Make sure you do a good job,” the new Washington State Ferries director said, at an introductory event at Colman Dock Monday afternoon, “and you take that discussion off the table.”

It was a pragmatic comment – affirming at once the need for efficiency and the legitimacy of publicly funded transit – and it bodes well as Thorne takes the helm of our beleaguered ferry system. In Mike Thorne, WSF has a director, and we believe he can become its champion as well.

To be sure, Thorne sails into tricky waters. The WSF has been fighting for its life since I-695 gouged operating and capital funding; in the state Legislature, the Cascade divide leaves Puget Sound transportation needs hobbled by Eastern Washington mulishness; and various “think tanks” continue their mindless refrain of “privatize the system.” (Read the history books, folks; we’ve been there, and it didn’t float.)

To the task, Thorne brings an impressive resume, including 10 years as chief executive of the Port of Portland (with a budget four times that of WSF) and directorship of several sizable industrial outfits. But we’re perhaps most intrigued by his legislative experience – 18 years in the Oregon state Senate, representing a district east of the Cascades.

Like our Washington, the Beaver State is a state divided, its regions distinctly different in climate, economy and political tenor. Industrial and hi-tech development is centered around Willamette Valley urban centers, with folks east of the mountains occupied with agriculture and natural resource use.

Thorne – a conservative Democrat, and a rural legislator who found his calling at the helm of an urban port system – should be ideally positioned to work legislators from both sides of the aisle, and both sides of the state.

As we’ve seen, some legislators and their constituents continue to operate under the myth that tax dollars are flowing from Eastern Washington into the Puget Sound area (if anything, revenues go from urbanized areas out to “the sticks”). But investment in the ferry system is an investment in Washington’s economic well-being – west and east – and must be integral part of the state budget. We trust Thorne will be an active and vocal proponent of that message.

A final thought: As an Oregon legislator, Thorne was credited for his support of development of light rail in the Portland metropolitan area; today, the highly successful MAX system spirits tens of thousands of riders the breadth of the Rose City.

More recently, as port director, Thorne saw development of a lengthy spur line to Portland International Airport (bringing the city distinction as first on the West Coast with a direct rail-to-air connection). Air travelers can now reach PDX from downtown, and from suburbs east and west, for a fare of just $1.55. Think of that, next time you fork out a few sawbucks for a cab ride to Sea-Tac or long-term airport parking.

Perhaps, if Thorne has any extra time in his ferry system duties, he can lend a hand over at Sound Transit.

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