John Olson, Ben Franklin Transit pioneer and former port commissioner, dies in Colorado

John Olson, 85, the man who got bus service off the ground in the Tri-Cities, died Sunday in Parker, Colo., south of Denver.

He led Ben Franklin Transit in its early years before being elected as a Port of Kennewick commissioner in 1999.

Olson was hired as Ben Franklin’s manager in September 1981 after working with Munro Associates of Seattle. He previously served as general manager of Bremerton-Charleston Transit, a commuter and charter bus system that contracted with Bremerton, according to Herald archives. Before that, he worked as district manager for Black Ball Lines in the Kitsap area.

“He was an extremely conscientious manager,” said Ed Frost, who served as Ben Franklin Transit’s development manager from 1982-2009. “He paid a lot of attention to detail. He really tried to deliver the best service he could for public transit.”

The authority ordered 22 rebuilt buses to start service, with 15 of them running when passenger service began in May 1982.

Olson was officially named general manager in 1983. Munro Associates owner Don Munro had previously held the title, making frequent trips from Seattle to the Tri-Cities, while Olson ran the system on a day-to-day basis.

Olson introduced taxi feeder service so less-densely populated areas could have access to the bus, as well as night service, at a time when such programs were rare in transit, Frost said. They are still in operation today.

“John was always considering innovative, less expensive ways of transit service and getting people from Point A to Point B,” Frost said.

Olson was placed on medical leave in 1989. Then-board Chairman Jerry Peltier said at the time that Olson had “slipped into a depression mode” after his wife, Virginia, died, and that was impacting the operations of the system.

He met his second wife, Deann, on a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, where she was a figure skating instructor. They were married for 23 years.

“To me, he was a superhero,” Deann Olson said. “He was special in my life.”

Olson retired in 1995, when Ben Franklin Transit had 200 employees and 54 buses that hauled 10,000 passengers a day.

Olson ran successfully for port commissioner by opposing a proposed $18 million project that would have dumped a million cubic yards of rock and dirt into the Columbia River to double the size of Clover Island.

He delivered on stopping the project, refocusing the port on a more modest plan of developing the island with mixed commercial and residential uses.

“John was a fiscal conservative, and he wanted us to keep an eye on the budget,” said Tim Arntzen, the port’s executive director. “He said treat it like it is your own money. Treat it like it is a valuable expenditure.”

Olson also believed the board’s mission was to set policy, not to micromanage the port’s day-to-day operations. Arntzen is thankful for the support Olson showed him in 2003, when he became interim executive director after John Givens resigned, just over a year after Arntzen joined the port as director of operations. He was given the position full-time in 2004.

Olson was strict, but fair, with the new director, Arntzen said.

“John let me know he expected for me to take time learning the position, and maybe make a mistake or two along the way,” he said. “He was a real principled man. I thought the world of him.”

Olson lost his bid for a second six-year term in 2005.

In 1985, Olson told a Pasco-Kennewick Rotary meeting his story of growing up in Seattle, as well as his Navy career. He went to a “Depression day care center,” while his mother worked at a waterfront cafe. He later attended Bellevue High School, where he was student body president and played football and basketball before graduating in 1947.

Olson worked his way through the University of Washington driving a truck. He was commissioned into the Navy after finishing college. He was one of 285 crew members on the destroyer USS Hanson, the only American ship assigned to the Yellow Sea to protect a British task force that included an aircraft carrier, during the Korean War.

“He loved his Navy,” Deann Olson said.

The Olsons moved from Richland to Colorado to be closer to Deann Olson’s grandchildren around seven years ago, his wife said. They traveled together to Kauai and Amsterdam. He volunteered at their church, and they attended Air Force Academy football games.

John Olson was in rehabilitation for a kidney infection when he suffered a fatal heart attack, his wife said.

“He was doing well, and it was so sudden,” she said. “I’m still in shock.”

Services are being planned in Colorado, and John Olson wants his ashes spread in the Pacific Ocean, Deann said.

He also leaves behind two older children, Craig Olson and Lynn Palmer, who live in Bellevue and Tacoma, respectively, as well as seven grandchildren.