Bulley, William A. (b. 1925)

  • By Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 3/28/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7289
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William Arthur Bulley served as Director of Highways for the Washington Department of Highways from 1975 to 1977. In  September 1977 when the Legislature created the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), he became the first Secretary of Transportation (1977-1981). As director, then secretary of the department, Bulley helped to resolve federal and local impediments to the completion of Interstate 90. He also secured federal funding to repair the Hood Canal Bridge after it sank, and to rebuild roads and bridges destroyed in the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Bulley was instrumental in continuing the department's gradual change of focus from highway building exclusively to its current inclusion of mass transportation.

Growing Up Into War

Bulley was born in Spokane on May 24, 1925. Immediately after graduation from West Valley High School, he enlisted in the army. During World War II, he served in the 103rd Infantry Division of the Seventh Army in Europe, and saw fighting in Southern France, Austria, Italy, and Germany. He took part in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, Bulley attended the University of Washington (UW), graduating in 1951 with a degree in Civil Engineering, and graduate studies in Industrial Engineering. At the UW, he met and married Sigrid Carlson, a source of strong support throughout his career. Together they have two sons, both doctors, and as of this writing (2005), five grandchildren.

While still in school, Bulley had worked for the highway department during the summer, and after graduation he began working as a bridge engineer for the department. In 1956, as structural engineer and head of a bridge design office, he was put in charge of Seattle freeway bridges and the Washington Ship Canal Bridge. In 1962 he was named Assistant Construction Engineer for District 7 in Seattle, responsible for construction of portions of Interstates 5 and 405.

Challenges and Innovations

When excavation and construction of I-5 through downtown Seattle began around Pike and Pine streets, apartments on Melrose Avenue on Capitol Hill began to crack. The new and unique solution was to shore up the east hills with what were called "cylinder wall piles," designed by John Klasell. Another new idea instituted at this time was reversible lanes in the freeway to handle rush hour traffic. This was introduced by District Engineer Walt McKibben and Design Engineer George Andrews.

Bulley was named District 7 Construction Engineer in 1965, and in 1966 became the Highway Engineer of District 4, headquartered in Vancouver, Washington. In 1968, he became the assistant highway director for management services, responsible for finance, budgeting, and other administrative activities. In this position, he was also a legislative liaison in Olympia. He was named Deputy Director in September 1969, filling the position of George H. Andrews when Andrews became Director of Highways to replace Charles G. Prahl.

The Highway Commission named Bulley Director of Highways in November 1975. On September 21, 1977, the legislature created the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to take over the Department of Highways and other related commissions and authorities. The State Transportation Commission replaced the Highway Commission, and it named Bulley the new department’s first Secretary of Transportation.

On Bulley's Watch

Bulley served as Secretary of Transportation through the following difficulties and accomplishments:

  • a court injunction halting I-90 work through the Snoqualmie Pass (1976);
  • the Commission memorandum of understanding with Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue, and King County on Interstate 90’s design (December 21, 1976);
  • the first public vanpooling (1979);
  • the sinking of the west half of the Hood Canal Bridge on February 13, 1979;
  • the lifting of the federal injunction that had halted Interstate 90’s construction between I-5 and I-405 (August 24, 1979);
  • the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens on May 18, 1980, which caused the destruction of more than 30 miles of SR 504 and necessitated the closing of 1,000 miles of state highways including stretches of I-5, and I-90.
In Bulley’s words, he had to resolve some ”very expensive troubles.”

In its 1975 interview of Bulley for the Director of Highways position, the Transportation Commission asked him what he thought was the most pressing issue facing the department. He replied that the since the Interstate 90 issue had been in court, construction costs had tripled. The commissioners advised him to "put it to bed or drop it." Bulley worked to achieve the Memorandum of Understanding that allowed for final federal approval and the ultimate construction of I-90. He said it took "a concentrated effort," and a year of negotiation to resolve the differences of opinion to make it happen. Because it had been a controversy for so long, the solution to the I-90 problem through the Memorandum of Understanding is the accomplishment Bulley felt most proud of during his time in office. It was the last link in the completion of Interstate 90 from Boston.

Toward Mass Transit

In 1977, Bulley established a public transportation division in the department for the first time, although he admits it didn’t have much power, being limited to planning for coordination of multi-model transportation. In 1974, the Legislature approved Public Transit Benefit Areas (PTBAs), which are multi-jurisdictional community transit districts.

In the following years, voters in different counties agreed to tax themselves to enact PTBAs and get new bus service underway. Previously, only cities and counties had the authority to run a bus service, but these new benefit areas could pool tax bases to expand bus service through their locales. Bulley continued to work toward encouraging a cultural shift toward mass transportation, the seeds of which he said began in the highway department under George Andrews. Bulley had been there from the beginning of interstate construction and realized that the state was "running out of geography" on which to build new roads.

Emergencies and Difficulties

The Hood Canal Bridge sank during a violent storm in February 1979, and Bulley was able to secure $100 million in federal emergency relief money to fund its replacement. The following year, on May 18, 1980, Mt. Saint Helens erupted, destroying more than 30 miles of highway and nine bridges. Bulley obtained another $100 million to repair the damage.

He told U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson, then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, "It looks like we’re going to need about $100 million [to fix state road and bridge damage]." Magnuson replied, "You just got $100 million ... money doesn’t grow on trees, you know" (interview). Luckily for the state, Magnuson was able to secure the second $100 million.

Moving On

In November 1979, Bulley announced his plan to retire at the end of February the following year, but due to the Transportation Commission’s problems with newly built ferries and labor issues within the Washington State Ferries (WSF) system, he agreed to stay on until a suitable replacement could be found.

Bulley, the department, and the Transportation Commission faced trouble with the legislature’s decision to slate $105.8 million for the construction of six new ferries -- the largest contract ever written by the state up until this time, and the state’s first design-build contract. The Highway Commission, under orders of the Legislature, signed the ferry contract with Marine Power & Equipment Co. in 1977 for what became known as the "Issaquah class" ferries -- six new ferries that repeatedly rammed docks and had other major technical problems.

The 1977 Washington State Legislature had tailored legislation to allow for local companies to compete for such large-scale contracts by way of reducing the bond required from the company for such a project from 100 percent of the costs to 25 percent. Marine Power sued the State in 1981, and the State countersued Marine Power shortly thereafter. In June 1985, after four years of legal conflict, a settlement awarded the $8.4 million.

Bulley had previously delayed retirement because he wanted to resolve some issues in the department. Also, he had recently been elected president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and wanted to complete his commitments and responsibilities to that organization. In November 1979, he told the Commission he had been with the department for nearly 30 years, was approaching eligibility for retirement, and that his original intention was to fill the position for only two to three years. He said, "I feel that the Department of Transportation is now well-organized and staffed with qualified and dedicated people" (Burt). Commissioner Julia Butler Hansen said, "We are sorry to lose him because it has been with his guiding hand that the department has become one of the most respected agencies in Washington state government" (Burt).

Duane Berentson (1928-2013) replaced Bulley as secretary of transportation on May 21, 1981. Bulley subsequently became senior vice-president for H. W. Lochner of Chicago in the firm’s Bellevue headquarters. Morrison-Knudsen Company, the company WDSOT hired to manage construction of I-90, later chose H. W. Lochner as a partner in that $4.3 million contract.

In 1999, Bulley "pretty well retired" from H. W. Lochner, although he remains with the firme as an advisor to the chairman of the company. After retirement, he and Sigrid "traveled a lot for about four or five years," and he currently enjoys working in his yard, reading, and playing with his five grandchildren.

Sources: The Seattle Times, March 25, 1966, p. S-6; “W. A. Bulley Named to No. 2 Highways Post," Ibid., September 26, 1969, p. 14; "Deputy Director to be New State Highways Chief,” Ibid., September 26, 1975, p. R-7; "Bulley Appointed Highways Director," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 27, 1975, p. A-5; Shelby Scates, “Bulley for the Ferry Deal, Regardless,” Ibid., June 16, 1978, p. B-4; Lyle Burt, “Bulley to Retire as Transportation Chief,” The Seattle Times, November 13, 1980, p. A-19; “Bulley Postpones Retirement,” Ibid., February 6, 1981, p. D-28; John De Yonge, “Berentson has Role in State Ferry Tale,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 27, 1986, p. A-9; Walter Hatch, “State Settles Suit for $8 Million,” The Seattle Times, June 25, 1985, p. B-1; Shelby Scates, “Feds Question State’s I-90 Contract,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 22, 1986, p. F-2; Harold R. Garrett, Washington State Highway & Transportation Department, 1905-1993 (Olympia: WSDOT, 1994), 6, 17; Washington Highways, Vol. 28, No. 4, September 1977, p. 3; Walt Crowley and Alyssa Burrows interview of William A. Bulley, February 9, 2005, Seattle, Washington, notes in possession of HistoryLink.org. Alyssa Burrows telephone interview with William A. Bulley, March 10, 2005, notes in possession of HistoryLink.org; “Historical Perspectives of Public transportation in Washington State,” Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) website accessed March 23, 2005 (www.wsdot.wa.gov/transit/library/2001_summary/02-Introduction.pdf).

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