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Originally published July 11, 2013 at 9:24 PM | Page modified July 12, 2013 at 5:57 AM

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Obituary: Duane Berentson, former transportation secretary, dies

Duane Berentson, a former state transportation secretary, is remembered for his focus on regional mass transit after forging through one transportation controversy after another.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Duane Berentson, who served the state as a Republican House speaker and later as the secretary of transportation who oversaw the long-awaited completion of I-90 between Seattle and the Eastside, has died.

His family said he died of heart failure on July 5. He was 84.

Mr. Berentson led the transportation department from 1981 to 1993, the first non-engineer to hold the job. The I-90 project had for years been plagued with stalled construction and long waits for federal funds, and in 1990, the original bridge over Lake Washington sank while being refurbished.

“We were in an ongoing four-year struggle to find every possible source of funds,” Mr. Berentson recalled in an interview with The Seattle Times after his retirement. “It was a matter of keeping our nose against the windowpane and not backing away.”

His time on the job was marked by a number of other problems: Legal battles surrounding ferry-system renovations lasted years. The handling of WSDOT’s budget was so criticized by the Puget Sound Council of Regional Governments that, according to state archives, it attempted to assume control over state and federal transportation money from WSDOT in the counties represented.

Mr. Berentson had to manage a controversy involving the Washington State Ferries general manager, who was accused of sexual assault, and the demotion of a state ferries chief who admitted to using a racially insensitive word for Louisianans of French-Canadian descent.

Through it all, he kept his cool and never ran from giant problems, his nephew, Steve Berentson, said.

“After 18 years in the Legislature, I think he’d already gone through enough trauma there in leadership positions,” said Steve Berentson, who served as a press secretary in his uncle’s unsuccessful run for governor in 1980. “He didn’t stress about things — he just forged ahead and tried to find solutions.”

Paula Hammond, who stepped down as state transportation secretary this year, said Mr. Berentson’s impact on the department was still obvious when she started on the job in 2007.

Hammond said Mr. Berentson used the relationships he formed on both sides of the aisle while in the Legislature to bring new respect and credibility to the state transportation department. Those relationships were key when trying to shift the reputation of the department from one focused on highways to one that also planned for the expansion of mass transit, she said.

“The thinking used to be find a highway solution to every problem,” Hammond said. “But the perspective Duane brought was there isn’t unending money for highways, nor was it ethical to pave all the land in the region.”

The Legislature eventually passed the High Capacity Transit Act in 1990, which initiated the study of future regional transit systems and legalized new taxes to help pay for those projects.

Mr. Berentson, raised in Anacortes, became transportation secretary after losing a Republican gubernatorial primary to eventual Gov. John Spellman.

Spellman named Mr. Berentson his liaison to the Legislature, and a few months later, he became secretary of transportation.

After his retirement, Mr. Berentson worked sporadically as a consultant in Olympia and then moved back to Skagit County in 2001.

Mr. Berentson is survived by Joanne, his wife of 64 years, children Kristi Burns of Spokane, Karol Rarig of Seabeck, Dan Berentson and David Berentson, both of Burlington, and Karen Maston of Centennial, Colo.; 15 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

Services will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Edison Lutheran Church, 14201 Church Road, Bow, Wash.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515

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