On May 14, 1969, the final section of Interstate 5 opened between Everett and Marysville, forever changing life in the Puget Sound region and completing a new road link to Vancouver, British Columbia. The last of some 276 miles of concrete and asphalt that had been laid down in sections for twenty years had opened up a new frontier for sprawling communities and left U.S. Highway 99 behind to decline.
Now, at over a half-century old, I-5 is something of a necessary evil in eyes of many who live here. Its use of left-hand exits causes traffic to weave and jam, the use of reversible express lanes creates a bottleneck for reverse commuters, and it creates a visual, auditory, and olfactory barrier between the neighborhoods it slices through. But it is also the backbone of the state’s freight movements and our regional express bus system, which is among the best in the nation.
At 50 years of age, I-5 is now chronically congested, seismically vulnerable, and has maintenance issues that often require emergency repairs during the middle of rush hour. The I-5 Systems Partnership was formed by local governments to study near-term solutions and develop a master plan for the 107-mile central corridor, which stretches from Tumwater to Marysville and includes 60 percent of the state’s population (some 4.3 million people, of whom 3.3 million are licensed drivers).
Last month, the I-5 Systems Partnership published its draft call to action, highlighting several proposed solutions to patch and repair our way out of traffic and misery, rather than endlessly expanding the freeway. The report estimates that $5.1 billion would be needed by 2040 to maintain the freeway and its bridges while also upgrading seismically-vulnerable structures and fix pavement issues. With the vast majority of gas tax revenues needed to pay off debt service for other projects, other funding sources will have to be found, such as a congestion charge or per-mile fees.
The current system of HOV lanes on I-5 are also failing in their own respects, with high rates of SOV violators and only marginal time savings compared to the general purpose lanes during peak hours. To restore some of its reliability, the partnership envisions a system of HOT lanes with tolls and controlled access points on I-5 between Lakewood and Everett. Bus drivers in the HOV lanes routinely have to slow down when passing stopped traffic, as many drivers will make last-second merges at low speeds, which could be avoided by the wider separation (and perhaps concrete barriers) afforded by HOT lanes.
The idea of adding charges to use I-5, a cornerstone of the Interstate System envisioned by the federal government in the mid-1950s, might be heresy to many drivers, but it’s not unfamiliar. The state government had conceived of I-5 in the 1940s as a “toll superhighway” with toll booths and limited entry in the same vein as the turnpikes found in the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard, but the plans were quickly dropped when the federal government offered to cover 90 percent of construction costs for the toll-free freeway.
Beyond the congestion and slowly-crumbling bridges on I-5, we will also need to address another major issue: mitigating the long-standing impact that the freeway has had on its neighboring communities. Seattleites had protested the trench-like design of I-5 through Downtown Seattle even before the first bulldozers and wrecking balls had begun destroying the block-wide swatch along the edge of First Hill and Capitol Hill. The creation and construction of Freeway Park in the 1970s did well to stitch downtown back to a small section of First Hill, and could be a template for building a longer lid for parkspace and other uses, as envisioned by groups like Lid I-5.
Of course, an obvious solution to the I-5 problem is to replace it entirely, which would be the smarter pursuit during this ongoing climate crisis. The I-5 corridor would likely form the backbone of a multi-billion dollar Portland-to-Vancouver BC high-speed (or higher-speed) rail link, and sections could be re-used as right-of-way for the train as it travels through the suburbs that separate Seattle from Everett and Tacoma. Any high-speed rail plan worth its salt would also include regional and local rail along the same corridor, if not the same tracks, serving as an alternate to driving for those outside the immediate catchment area for Link and its short bus feeders.
While we may never be entirely rid of I-5, the least we could do is maintain what we have and mitigate away some of the mistakes made 50 years ago when it was first designed and constructed. Doing so would heal some long-open wounds in the landscape and communities most affected by freeway pollution, while also setting ourselves up for a less ruinous relationship with our beloved I-5.