Construction continues full-tilt on the new SR 520 bridge. Westbound lanes will open to traffic April 11, state officials announced Jan. 12.
Commuters crossing Lake Washington today can see concrete-crushing excavators gnawing away at the “ramps to nowhere.” Newcomers may wonder, why were those ramps built, and why do they end in midair?
In the 1950s, Seattle city planners envisioned interlocking freeways surrounding the downtown core: the Seattle Freeway (now Interstate 5), SR 99, and the R.H. Thomson Expressway, a north-south freeway from the Rainier Valley along the route of today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way through the Arboretum to SR 520.
East-west connecting freeways also were planned for the Spokane Street, Mercer Street, and N.E. 50th corridors.
Voters approved the R.H. Thomson and Mercer Street freeways in 1960. The latter was slated to be a viaduct named the Bay Freeway.
The new Evergreen Point Floating Bridge opened in 1963, and it included ramps that swept up and out over the marshy water near the Arboretum – and truncated in midair. Those ramps to nowhere were to later connect with the Thomson Expressway, but they remained unused for 52 years and just recently began meeting the jackhammer.
Why did the ramps never connect? Soon after the 1960 vote, public sentiment turned against the freeway projects. It’s not hard to see why. Having witnessed the demolition of residential neighborhoods to make way for I-5, communities like Mt. Baker, Leschi, Madrona, Montlake, and South Lake Union rallied against the Thomson and Bay freeways.
Environmental and neighborhood activists joined forces to oppose the plans, and by 1967 Seattle’s City Council had stopped funding the Thomson Expressway. It then voted in 1970 to kill the project altogether.
The Council sent the freeway issue back to voters for a final decision, and in a February 1972 referendum, 71% of ballots terminated the Thomson Expressway. Voters also killed the Bay Freeway but by a narrower margin, 55% to 45%.
If you cross the floating bridge today, look southward near Foster Island at the truncated ramps and envision them joining a freeway that bisects the beloved Arboretum. That’s the R.H. Thomson Expressway that nearly came to be.
And I can’t help but wonder: Stuck with the nightmare bottleneck Seattleites now call the “Mercer mess,” would residents today have applauded a Bay Freeway, after all?
(Photos courtesy WSDOT, Seattle Municipal Archives)