Lopez resident Tom Cowan appointed to state transportation commission

The San Juans won’t be left behind in the wake of ferry system changes.

At least, not if Tom Cowan has a say.

The Lopez resident has been appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to the Washington State Transportation Commission. He is succeeding Bob Distler, from Orcas, who was not reappointed after his term expired.

“I have big shoes to fill,” Cowan said. “I am not sure if I should be happy or start crying. I will readily admit I am apprehensive. Given the significant problems with our transporation system … it will be a challenge. But I look forward to challenges. I always have.”

Cowan has more than 27 years of public policy experience, beginning with his election as a San Juan County commissioner in 1983, leadership positions in state and federal agencies, and involvement in numerous non-profit organizations.

Cowan was director of the Northwest Straits Commission, established to protect and restore vital marine resources in northern Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, from 1999 to 2006.

Prior to that, he was assistant director for the Puget Sound Action Team. He is currently chair of the San Juan County Land Bank Commission and serves on the board of the SeaDoc Society.

A resident of Lopez Island for 36 years, Cowan worked as an electrical contractor before his election as San Juan County commissioner. He and his wife, Tammy, also owned Sunset Builders Supply, the island’s only hardware store.

They sold the business several years ago. Cowan is currently a public policy consultant and marine resources project manager. He is an avid fly fisherman and enjoys golfing with his wife and camping with their kids and grandkids.

“I have a steep learning curve because I have very little (transportation) experience except as a ferry rider for 36 years,” he said. “I have been overwhelmed with reports and I will try to come up to speed.”

The transportation commission is a seven-member body of citizens appointed by the governor for six-year terms. It provides a public forum for transportation policy development, issues the state’s 20-year transportation plan, and serves as the state’s tolling authority, setting tolls for state highways and bridges and fares for Washington State Ferries.

“I think it’s important that someone from the islands is on that commission,” Cowan said. “As a commissioner, I will work to raise more awareness of the connections between our transportation system and our marine environment. Our state’s economic health depends on a fully functioning and efficient transportation system that meets our mobility needs, helps sustain our natural resources, and provides connectivity between modes. The ferry system is an important part of this system, providing a vital link both in the San Juan Islands and throughout Puget Sound. Its future must be stabilized.”

Cowan will be in Olympia starting Feb. 14 for orientation and his first two-day commission meeting.

“One obvious and important goal is to try to improve the revenue stream for all the transportation needs of the state, but I will be focusing on the ferry system,” he said. “The deficit that the ferry system is facing is a quarter of $1 million a day for the next 10 years. That is something that we can’t allow to happen … legislation is necessary but there isn’t anything on the table right now. I don’t know what is best – that is what I am studying. This regional authority that the Governor suggested went nowhere, so something else needs to happen. That could be an additional gas tax or vehicle tax.”

Throughout his term, Cowan hopes to improve communication between San Juan County residents and the transportation commission.

“There is a lack of full understanding, especially in the San Juans,” he said. “Part of my role will be to better communicate what we have and what we need. Sometimes people seem to be reactionary without a full understanding of what is going on.”