Imagine if this hadn't been built.
Imagine if this hadn’t been built.

We’re on the eve of the biggest civic mistake in the history of our fair city. After 4 decades of protest following their narrow defeat in 1972, anti-freeway activists are poised to prevail at last. In just 3 weeks Seattleites will vote on whether to dismantle  the RH Thomson Expressway.

The fabled roadway — long thought dead after being defunded by the City Council, only to be resurrected at the last minute by the barest majority of forward-thinking citizens — may not win any prizes for aesthetic beauty. But the workhorse highway dutifully carries 110,000 vehicles per day, providing both critical capacity and mobility through Central Seattle and an essential bypass of Downtown for people traveling through Lake City, Sand Point, the University District, the Central District, the Rainier Valley, and South King County. Yet the seismically vulnerable structure is due for replacement, and in an act of unparalleled delusion, we are balking. If approved by Seattle voters in November, Proposition 3 would remove all 6 cloverleaf interchanges, sink the Union Bay tunnel, remove the median, and narrow the roadway to just two lanes between the Arboretum and Madison St, and four lanes (two of them parking) between Madison and the I-90 interchange. This is not a road diet, this is a road hunger strike. We must step back from the edge before its too late. We must save mobility in Central Seattle.

Imagine a Seattle without the RH Thomson. People commuting from Kirkland to Boeing Field would be forced against their will to funnel onto an already-congested Interstate 5. Those accustomed to the swift trip underneath Union Bay would be subjected to a long slog through the surface streets of Montlake instead. Vehicles headed for I-90 Eastbound will have to backtrack all the way to Rainier Ave S. And let’s not forget that the booming retail corridor in the Central District owes its very existence to the RHT: the Walmart Supercenter at E Union Street, the Cabela’s at S Massachusetts St, and the 13 car dealerships that make up Atlantic’s famed Auto Row. Imagine Seattle without these sales tax revenues, 19% of which of which flow directly to our overburdened transit system.

The anti-freeway activists have a progressive aversion to commerce and seek to return our city to a mythological Mayberry that never was. They wax poetic about rebuilding lost Craftsmans, restoring Foster Island, and replanting the Arboretum. They fret about climate change, oblivious to the fact that congestion exacerbates emissions, as cars get zero mpg when idling in gridlock. They have admirable but implausible intentions for the blight-ridden Madison Valley, imagining it as a posh enclave full of French Restaurants and high-end sushi.

The RH Thomson at Cherry Street. (Tom Fucoloro)
The RH Thomson at Cherry Street. (Tom Fucoloro)

The activists believe that a transit alternative is workable in its place, with plans for an electrified Bus Rapid Transit line (“Route 48”) running every 5 minutes between Rainier Beach and the University of Washington on a parallel corridor 6 blocks to the west of RH Thomson. They have no plans, none, for high-capacity travel through Madison Valley and the western edge of Madrona and Leschi, believing that a local bus service alone will do the job. This small-scale thinking is laughable on its face, and it cannot stand.  Where do they expect all those cars to go?

The adult answer to the needs of this corridor is a seismic retrofit, complete with at least one new lane in each direction to ease congestion and reduce carbon emissions by optimizing the corridor for continuous 55mph travel. The additional lane can be accommodated by removing the median, reconfiguring the frontage roads, and modestly reducing the setbacks and parking at retail outlets along the corridor. As mitigation for lost retail parking, the city should pay for structured parking facilities at a minimum of half-mile intervals along the corridor.

Such a plan would take seriously the mobility needs of the vast majority of Seattle citizens, for whom car ownership is both a necessity of life and a lifestyle choice that confers happiness and freedom. Our choice is clear: save mobility, ease congestion, and VOTE NO on Prop 3. Save the RH Thompson.

Disclaimer: The above post is satire and none of the above is true. This, however, is. Goodbye Ramps to Nowhere!

17 Replies to “Save the R.H. Thomson Expressway: Vote No on Prop 3”

    1. Look up Mount Hood Freeway and the impact that would have had on SE Portland for another example.

  1. There’s a wonderful picnic spot in the middle of that cloverleaf, and a bicycle tunnel to it that was built as part of the 520 renovation. Great views of the lake and university, although it is a bit loud. A hundred species of endangered grasses have been planted in the spaces between the ramps, each with a little sign, and the Arboretum has adopted it and maintains it. And look, there’s John Bailo having a picnic and waving at us. Hi John! He tried to get permission to build a cabin in the cloverleaf, but was denied because it’s a New Olmstead heritage park.

  2. I spent about 20 minutes reading and rereading, googling, and searching Wikipedia to figure out if this is was a factual article. Then I read the little tiny disclaimer and then it all made sense. Though, now I really am curious to know what it would have been like had this expressway been built.

  3. Morning 04-01 maybe ten years ago,KUOW a wheelhouse interview with the skipper of a Foss tugboat, with background machinery noise of a marine diesel cranking up, and a tow-chain taking up slack.

    The voyage under weigh was described as the culmination of a plan by the State of Washington, at the insistence of the Guemes Island (I think) Chamber of Commerce to improve the island’s tourist economy by towing it into Elliott Bay.

    The station did describe desperately furious calls demanding to know why there hadn’t been any public hearings on the matter. May have been part of the joke too- but at least they didn’t chicken out and spoil the impact by telling everybody it wasn’t real.

    Now, worse and unfortunately real worse thing is Public Radio’s new putrid habit of warning listeners to stuff broccoli in their ears in advance about the next piece of news announcing that something horrible just took place in a perfectly nice war.

    Also, to stuff broccoli into the children’s ears- if they haven’t already done this with both their own ears and their sister’s, an event that’ll make the war thing look like a bedtime story.

    The above picture, though, reveals a plan that could really massively unite every relevant interest: complete the cloverleaf as shown- with project funded by the one percent for the arts rule for transit.

    And use it for all pedestrian and bicycle all-day experience- with wheeled transit provided by the kind of battery-powered chains of golf carts that the Waterfront Project wants to replace streetcars with.

    Absolutely mandatory of course, will be a plaque visible from every jet airliner in or out of Sea-Tac, presenting the completely idiotic inner meaning of the art-piece.

    Really does look like an octopus, doesn’t it? Hey, don’t those creatures also change color a lot? LED’s, LED’s !!!!

    Oh yeah, and this whole thing is not only real but just got finished this morning! THIS is what Seattle can do without six thousand years of meetings!

    Artistically critically, Mark

  4. Excellent satire, but waaaaayyyy too scary. I’m still in shock mourning the Rhodes in the Arboretum!

    Is this an early Halloween post.

  5. Where would the tunnel under the ship canal have gone? Looks like they would have had to hack a highway through the UW’s heating plant?

    1. There was a Bay Freeway proposal at Valley Street; it may be related to that rather than Union Bay. The full 1950s-60s proposal was for a rectangular “ring” on I-5, 99, Spokane Street, and Valley Street, and another connector on NE 50th Street. I don’t remember a Ship Canal or Union Bay tunnel. Other proposals were the Thompson Freeway, and a Cross-Sound Bridge with an intermediate exit on Vashon Island. The west sound and Vashon and the San Juans said no to bridges to keep growth away.

    2. The Museum of History and Industry has an exhibit on these and other road and transit proposals through the years.

    3. The Union Bay tunnel surfaced somewhere around University Village. The Thomson freeway would’ve followed the 25th Ave NE corridor out to meet up with Lake City Way. If it had been built, Lake City Way would likely have become freeway also, perhaps all the way to Bothell.

      When I arrived here in 1968, the city Comprehensive Plan was a map with 4 north/south freeway corridors showing — 15th Ave. W & NW, Aurora Ave. I-5, and the R.H. Thomson. Plus an east/west freeway between 45th and 50th streets. Yes, the glory days of urban highway building.

      1. Thanks.

        From the rendered photo it looks it would have been interesting to make it low enough for navigation.

  6. I for one will be sad when the ramps to nowhere are gone. They are as much a part of classic Seattle as anything.

  7. Well done Zack. And we are probably as polar opposite on the political spectrum as it gets. You must be a big fan of our current Bellevue City Counsol as they are a clone of the backward thinking you highlight. A whole career of posts. Although, this being WA State it is a target rich environment.

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