Some freeway plans never went anywhere

Matt Masuoka of Bothell posed the question: "Just how many proposed freeways in the Seattle metro area were never built and which ones were they?"

"I've heard about the more well-known ones such as the R.H. Thomson Expressway, Bay Freeway, and Interstate 605," he continued, "but surely there are more, aren't there? What kind of impact would the freeways have on traffic today if they were built?"

We need to go back in history, back to the days when freeways were seemingly free, thanks to the generosity of the federal government, which paid 90 percent of the cost. Planners proposed a host of ambitious projects in the 1950s and 1960s, but most were dead by the mid-1970s, victims of anti-freeway revolts.

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Only one, Interstate 605, seems to have a little bit of life yet, thanks to an Eastside shopping-mall developer.

Here's the rundown of some roads that never were:

R.H. Thomson Expressway: Anyone who lived in Seattle in the 1960s will remember the bloody battle waged over the highway, named after a turn-of-the-century city engineer, that would have run north through the Central Area and Montlake, through a tube under Union Bay and up through Ravenna to an interchange with the proposed Bothell Freeway.

Voters approved money for the project in 1960. Protests caused officials to change the route, lawsuits tied it up in courts for years and, in 1969, the City Council refused to authorize any more money to study it. Voters agreed to rescind the money in 1972. One remnant from this aborted freeway still exists, a one-lane ramp to nowhere adjacent to Highway 520 at Montlake.

Bay Freeway: The city began planning for this highway in 1954, and voters agreed to raise taxes to pay for it in 1960. It would have carried traffic from Interstate 5 to Seattle Center and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But by the late 1960s, activists were complaining the elevated freeway would wall off Lake Union from the rest of the city, and when voters decided not to put the Kingdome at Seattle Center, one argument for the project evaporated. Voters killed the freeway in 1972.

East Side Freeway (Interstate 605): This freeway would have been built east of I-405 to ease growing congestion on the Eastside and in South King County. But it drew complaints from myriad communities. When a consultant determined the freeway wasn't needed, the project died. Last year, however, Bellevue Square owner Kemper Freeman Jr. proposed nearly 2,000 miles of new freeway lanes for the region — including a new I-605 through the Snoqualmie Valley and Snohomish County.

North Lake Bridge: This was another bridge across Lake Washington, north of Highway 520. The Legislature ordered a study in 1966, and consultants called for a new, eight-lane freeway from I-605 on the east, crossing Lake Washington to Seattle's Matthews Beach and ending at Aurora Avenue North. Protests of "paving the lake" erupted, and the bridge idea promptly sank.

Bothell Freeway: This six-lane, 13-mile freeway would have run from I-5 through Lake City and into Snohomish County before looping back to Bothell and I-405. It, too, drew strong neighborhood protests and by 1973 was erased from any plans.

Cross-Sound Bridge: Another nonstarter. It was considered by every Legislature from 1949 until at least 1967. The most serious proposal was a four-lane floating bridge from West Seattle to Vashon Island, but the project bogged down and died.

Northwest Expressway: Included in Seattle's comprehensive plan in the 1960s, it would have run through Interbay and Ballard to Aurora. It wasn't included in a 1967 regional transportation study that called for construction of the Thomson Expressway, Bay Freeway and many of the others that were never built.

But even if all these projects had been built, Seattle probably still would have traffic problems today, said Rick Olson of the four-county Puget Sound Regional Council.

In the 1960s, freeway boosters argued the new roads were needed to handle growth. But even those crusading for more concrete didn't anticipate the kind of growth the Puget Sound region has experienced.

"We'd still have plenty of traffic congestion, especially during the commute, because planners underestimated by about 600,000 the number of people who'd be using the system to go to work every day and they didn't give themselves much wiggle room to provide for that magnitude of job growth," Olson said.

"One way to think about the impact of those proposed freeways is to compare the way places are now that didn't get freeways to the way places are that are near major freeways.

"Would downtown Kirkland be more like downtown Bellevue? Would Vashon Island be more like Mercer Island?" he said.

He said planners were correct in anticipating the new freeways would serve a regional population of 2.75 million in 1990. But they forecast only 832,000 jobs, when the number was actually 1.4 million.

"So the morning and evening commutes would have been worse than these planners expected, even if we had built it all, even in 1990," Olson said. He said the 2000 job count was 2 million, or nearly 1.2 million more jobs than the freeways were designed to serve.

"The plan did not anticipate that we'd have to replace the 520 and Alaskan Way Viaduct bridges," Olson said. "And they were right about that. Still afloat and still standing as of 1990. And 2003. But?"

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or