New WSF chief promises efficiencies, better service

Standing inside the open concourse of the Bremerton Transportation Center on Monday, Jan. 7, state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald introduced Michael Thorne as the new chief executive officer of the Washington State Ferries.

Thorne, a former Oregon senator and third-generation wheat farmer, served 10 years as executive director of the Port of Portland before resigning in May. He contemplated a run for Oregon governor before accepting the top WSF job.

Thorne is the fourth ferry director in 11 years. His predecessor, Paul Green, left in October 2000 after six years to become the chief operating officer for L.A. World Airports. Since then, Terry MCarthy 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,” said Phil Olwell, a WSF employee at the Bremerton ferry terminal. “We’ve got to come together as individuals and as communities.”

Alice Tawresey, who chairs the Tariff Policy Committee of the state Transportation Commission, said Thorne’s political experience — a “euphemism for getting money,” she added — could be beneficial.

“I would hope that within the context of how we deal with the Legislature,” Thorne said, “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.”

At Monday’s press conference, Thorne promised to implement cost efficiencies and improve customer service — 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,” Thorne said.

Improved customer service also has been a theme of Thorne’s new boss, DOT chief MacDonald.

Thorne takes over leadership of the nation’s largest ferry system during a time of transition, with ridership slipping and the system struggling financially.

Ferry fares were raised by an average of 20 percent in June 2000.

“He understands customer service,” MacDonald said. “He understands the maritime business. He has built transportation systems and shown how they fit together.”

Before leaving the Port of Portland, the 61-year-old was making $196,000 a year. His annual WSF salary will be $130,000.

As port director, Thorne was in charge of 750 employees, Portland International Airport, three general aviation airports and marine terminals.

Among other things, Thorne is credited for leading a renovation of Portland International Airport and for reducing the port’s dependence on local tax dollars.

But Thorne’s tenure was not without controversy, including his work on a Columbia River navigation channel dredging project.

Port officials said the dredging was necessary to accommodate larger ocean-going ships, but environmentalists objected to the plan.

Thorne also was the subject of a flap over a $47,000 salary increase. He reimbursed the port for that raise before leaving in May 2001.

“I’m going to miss Thorne,” said Port of Portland spokeswoman Debbie Kennedy, who lived on Bainbridge Island and commuted to Seattle before leaving to work for Thorne.

Kennedy said Thorne has a good track record on customer satisfaction issues.

She cited a recent J.D. Powers survey in which Portland International Airport ranked second among similar-sized airports in customer satisfaction and first in retail opportunities.

Thorne represented the Pendleton area of eastern Oregon in the state Senate from 1973-1991. 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 port post.

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