Downtown Seattle and the newly-built Interstate 5, as seen in 1966 (Seattle Municipal Archives)

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.

44 Replies to “Interstate 5 Turns 50 and Shows Its Age”

  1. No discussion of alternatives for I-5 would be complete without a discussion of an

    Autonomous Vehicle Plan for the I-5 Seattle/Vancouver B.C. Corridor

    Long haul trucks are a natural for becoming early adopters of this technology. The cabs are expensive to purchase so the addition of the self driving system represents a much smaller percentage of total cost to purchase. Eliminating the cost of labor and increasing the on road availability by eliminating the requirement for mandatory rest stops would recoup the investment. This all of course also applies to express buses.

      1. Most commodity freight is moved by train. And a significant portion of imported consumer goods moving from Pacific ports to the Mississippi River or beyond move by train.

        Autos and appliances manufactured in the East of the Mississippi destined for the West Coast states move by rail, but most other consumer goods and ALL fruits and vegetables move by truck.

        Nearly all crude oil and most refined products move by pipeline, though industrial chemicals still move by rail.

        Barges take the bulk business wherever there are navigable waterways.

        So, No, “most freight” most assuredly does not move by rail.

      2. This really depends entirely on how things are planned. Eg, cold storage warehouses to receive foodstuffs by train are quite common. That’s what moves in refrigerator cars. However, in places like the Kent Valley this isn’t possible as the new industrial areas were built without track. Long distance railroads are organized around that, and so trucks are used where bureaucratic tangles of the big companies don’t allow it, but short lines and regionals do an excellent job of moving quite a lot of freight off of trucks as they are less encumbered by internal inertia that orient the company around only serving large customers.

        If I-5 were to have freight track added, I would hope that it would be open access, so that both short lines and kind distance railroads would be able to use it for what they each do best.

      3. By tonnage that might be true. But I don’t buy a lot of coal or wheat by the train load. Virtually every consumer product makes at least part of it’s trip by truck. Refrigerated rail cars are pretty much a relic. But refrigerated containers are an integral part of today’s intermodal system. Move the container as far as you can by rail and then transfer to trucks that go to distribution centers. The idea of autonomous highways is a double win with refrigerated goods because you’re burning energy sitting still.

        As for paying for the infrastructure, obviously the government would be taking the lead. How that is funded is an open question. I believe freight companies, construction companies and maybe even rideshare companies might be willing to work a public private partnership. Of course in the end any costs associated with transportation are ultimately passed on to the consumer of those products.

      4. When is the last time you went by transit, bicycling or walking to a rail depot to pick up any commodity? Probably zero. Even when rail is the longest part of a commodity’s trip, the metro and even larger regional distribution system depends on trucks.

        Keep in mind that I-5 wasn’t there, the arterial streets would have lots more trucks with goods. Imagine every local street with 10-20 percent trucks! Plus, a freeway lane carries about 2.5 lanes of street traffic so losing a freeway means lots more street lanes with lots more trucks.

        It’s the very existence of I-5 that keeps most of the trucks away from our city streets, making it safer for bicyclists to use and pedestrians to cross.

        Sure there are freeway issues. Still it’s part of our system and it takes truck traffic off of our local streets!

      5. National brands and chain stores and long-distance commodity shipping started around the same time as the freeways. Before that there was some long-distance trade and ordering from Sears catalogs, but not most of our stuff or most of our food. So there were more small trucks making local deliveries, and trucks delivering milk and ice to your door, but they weren’t large commodity trucks. So, we have a global supply chain now and we need large trucks, but it’s worth asking whether these and the interstates are part of the same problem, and we should prioritize more local manufacturing and agriculture and not have as many tucks coming from California or going to Canada.

      6. Use the data here to compare.

        The question you should be asking is, who pays for the infrastructure?
        Don’t tell me that truckers do. Sure, they pay large fees, but most capacity improvements are funded by gas taxes and fees.

        Roads, especially local, are getting the crap pounded out of them because truckers will use the larger trailers (insead of smaller box trucks,) all the way, point-to-point.
        Small munipalites are deferring simple pothole maintenance, because the gas tax doesn’t cover those costs. They make it up with property taxes and other local fees.

        Plus, as in Seattle’s case, the locals are just not interested in funding ‘improvements’ to their road grid, just to satisfy outside users. (I.e. the “war on cars”)

        Here’s a thought experiment to help envision what a true market based transportation system would look like.

        Remember, the Class 1 railroads are a for profit enterprise, and they pay taxes on their property.

        When was the last time a trucking company, or a consortium of trucking companies built and operated the infrastructure they desire? (similarly, what airline has built their own airport?)

        For instance, most ROW of the interstates is wider than what the lanes take up.
        Deed the excess land to the trucking companies, and let them build the infrastructure.

        But saying that the mode share is some sort of ‘natural distribution’ is erroneous.

        Direct $ subsidies abound.

      7. ut I don’t buy a lot of coal or wheat by the train load.

        Carload freight can be anything a truck can move. The railroad that used to run down the middle of 14th in Ballard was almost entirely for things consumers bought. If I remember right at least one bakery on the line got its grain by rail.

        There is no particular reason why the Fred Meyer on the Fremont – Ballard line couldn’t receive products from the main warehouse in Clackamas, Oregon by rail, except the main line carriers have adopted a rate structure that discourages this type of shipment except for long distances.

        A regional railroad, such as Portland & Western here in Oregon, can adopt a rate structure far more conducive to shorter distance shipments. The fact they are moving hundred car freight trains over lines that BN moved 12 per day before the line was sold off speaks volumes of the market for carload freight that isn’t being met by the long distance railroads.

        An open access line (infrastructure by the government and service provided by any carrier – similar to highways) might allow a short line or regional operator to remove far more trucks from the roads than a long distance operator alone.

        Refrigerated rail cars are pretty much a relic.

        You’ll see 5-20 in most general merchandise trains going through the area. More so east-west.

        Due to weight limits on roads it’s cheaper, when possible, to go from warehouse to warehouse using a freight car rather than a container. Sure, you still need trucks for local delivery, but local delivery means local roads.

      8. The railroad that used to run down the middle of 14th in Ballard was almost entirely for things consumers bought. If I remember right at least one bakery on the line got its grain by rail.

        What you’re suggesting is turning back the clock. There were undoubtedly some good things about “the good ole days”. T&D Feeds in DT Redmond used to receive train car loads of grain. The Safeway bread plant in Bel-Red still has the tracks crossing 120th Ave NE. The Bread plant has turned into the Spring District and the feed store is now part of Redmond Town Center. Going back in time would require huge changes to land use and social patterns. What makes that pretty much impossible is the loss of ROW and that’s why I supported maintaining the Woodinville Subdivision as a freight corridor. C’est la vie.

      9. If freeways were managed the way long distance freight railroads are managed, I-5 would be reduced by at least one lane each direction to reduce costs and tolls would be levied to maximize profits on the reduced infrastructure.

        It isn’t a matter of turning back the clock as many places could still receive shipments by rail. Several examples are still along the Ballard Terminal line.

        If you want to reduce the amount of money consumed by highways, you also need to consider policies that move freight away from highways as well.

    1. Will the trucking companies and companies like Uber be paying for construction of these lanes?

      Maybe having HOT lanes isn’t the only answer, they should make a right hand TOT (TruckOnlyToll) lane so they can help support the cause.

      1. “Will the trucking companies and companies like Uber be paying for construction of these lanes?”

        Uber will only do it if there’s a fat profit for their shareholders. That’s kind of another way of saying, if it’s good for Uber it’s bad for us.

        Trucking is being squeezed like newspapers. They probably don’t have the money for this and it’s uncertain question whether the trucking industry will survive, or whether drivers get so burned out they won’t sign up or won’t make enough money to drive their truck.

    2. “eliminating the cost of labor” and accelerating the wealth transfer machine.

  2. The curious aspect of the design to me was the creation of reversible lanes. While useful in the past, I think that commute times and work locations have made the concept outdated today.

    We’re the reversible lanes part of the original design or were they added in the 1960’s or 1970’s?

    1. The reversible lanes were built in the 1990s IIRC. I highly doubt they were part of the original design.

      1. They were in existence in the 1970s, so it’s possible they were always part of the design.

      2. Of course they were part of the original design. How else would they exist with only lane at each interchange. FGS.

      3. I find it hard to believe they would build the freeway and then build the express lanes two years later, unless it was a phased development for some reason.

    2. The freeway only goes back to the late 60s, It wasn’t here in the World’s Fair. I came in 1972 and lived in Haller Lake first, and the express lanes were always there. If they were added later they would have connected to 520, but the explosive growth of the Eastside wasn’t predicted. 520 originally had tolls but they were removed seven years early because of the growth. We moved to Bellevue in 1973 and at that time 520 only went east to 405. If the express lanes had connected to 520 they;d be bogged down now.

      MOHAI has an exhibit of Seattle’s transportation vision at the time of the World’s Fair. There’s a video of the then-mayor and city council saying I-5 and 520 would be Seattle’s greatest transportation achievement ever. The future wasn’t monorail, it was freeways. 405 could have been the main freeway but Seattle eagerly pushed to get it routed through downtown. I think it had already planned the Northgate highway, and it hastilly added the Beacon Ridge segment so that it could go all the way through from Lynnwood to Tukwila. My friend who’s a second-generation Rainier Valleyite said when I-5 opened it was practically empty because people didn’t know what to do with it: it didn’t reflect commuter patterns which were from Rainier/Beacon to Renton Boeing. But commute patterns changed because of the freeways, and the growth of Southcenter at a freeway interchange.

      Much of the reason for routing it through downtown was that this was the days of suburban flight and they thought they needed the freeway to attract shoppers back downtown and prevent it from declining into irrelevance and slums. Many US cities have lackluster downtowns, and some are so undense they’re indistinguishable from suburbs. In the 1950s the were the center of the metropolis and had practically all the jobs and shopping, but in the 1960s middle-class people weren’t interested in them.

      So it’s worth asking how much I-5 fulfilled its original goals. Downtown has certainly reversed its decline and grown spectacularly, but I think I-5 was only a small part of that. What we missed out on was a boulevard where I-5 is like Vancouver and London have, connecting to a freeway somewhere in the outskirts. Then you could have faster-than-arterial traffic and also walk-up businesses and housing directly next to it, a place that attracts pedestrians rather than repels them, and that doesn’t make an unwalkable gash between one side and the other.

    3. The express lanes were part of the later design of I-5 and opened in June 1965, a few months after the Shoreline-Everett section. They did well in carrying the overwhelming peak flow (and at the time it opened, I-5 was already described as being “jammed” during rush hours), but a direct connection to SR 520 was deemed unnecessary because most downtown traffic from the floating bridge would have been siphoned away by the R. H. Thomson Expressway (running along what is now MLK Way), which would have had a freeway connection on Madison Street.

    4. The express lanes were built with the original freeway. But it looks like they were built in 2 stages. The 1st stage was built with the downtown section up unto around Roanoke. It was finished in 1962. The Northgate section of I5 was opened in 1965. Bruce also comments on this date of opening. Even if part of the express lines were done in 1962 they were probably opened to the public in 1965. I asked my Dad earlier and he said the express lanes were part of the original freeway but also forgot the opening year. What I do not know is how many times the downtown exits were changed. In 1962 there was no Convention Center, Bus tunnel or Seattle Municipal Tower (AT&T Gateway Tower).

      1. Forgot to mention. Some of the cornerstones on the older downtown freeway overpasses still say 1962 on them.

    5. I-90 also had reversible lanes. Off-peak it was 2×2, peak hours it was 3 lanes peak, 1 lanes reverse peak. It was like that in the 70s up until the second Mercer Island bridge was built in 1989.

      1. Reversible lanes were in operation on the I-90 bridge until 2017 when ST completed the re-striping for HOV lanes on the outside roadway. That was done so East Link could take over the center roadway ROW.

      2. There were 2 sets of reverable lanes on I-90. The old ones on the 1940’s old bridge with the red x’s and green arrows. They were dangerous and had no barriers. Then there were the modern ones on the redone I-90 after the 1989-93 bridge replacements. Bernie is talking about the newer ones. I remember them both. Also there was no direct entrance from I-5. You had to get on at Dearborn somewhere. I can’t seem to find anybody other than my Dad that remembers that. My mom hated the old ones so much she would go over 520 and pay a toll. Again, not the new toll, but the old $.75 toll from the ’70s. Some confusion of freeway history probably due to the fact that some people have been here so long we are seeing things done a second time.

      3. In the 70s I-90 ended at Rainier and you turned up past Black Manufacturing (the red brick building that then sold down clothing), turn left on Dearborn, and get on I-5 there. Then I-90 was extended to Dearborn itself, just west of Goodwill on the south side. I think you can still see where the entrance was. I-5’s exits were a little further west on Dearborn; I think they’re still there but I’m not sure. That seems to be the reason Dearborn Street is so wide; much wider than it needs to be now.

      4. There is a car chase scene in the movie McQ. It shows some of these roads, including both south and northbound entrances to I-5 in 1973. It is on You Tube. It is pretty funny and has “The Duke” in it.

      5. Jimmy James: I grew up in Mt Baker in the 70’s, and remember Dearborn street being signed with I-90 TEMP signs. You would exit I-5 at Dearborn, then turn right onto Corwin St (2 blocks West of Rainier). This was where I-90 proper began. It was a converted city street in line with 17th Ave S. At S Atlantic St there was a rather sharp left turn to the East, Over the top of both Rainier and Empire Way (modern day MLK) and into the twin tunnels. There was an on/off ramp at the corner of 17th and Atlantic, but just for eastbound traffic. Today 17th south of Atlantic remains a very wide arterial street, but carries almost no traffic, as it ends at Massachusetts St.

      6. Maybe I-90 continued to Dearborn but the 550’s predecessors always got off at Rainier Avenue for reasons I never understood. But Metro had no concept of frequent fast corridors then; everything was a milk run that went through as many low-density neighborhoods as possible, except the peak expresses for those lucky enough to have one and who worked downtown 9-5. (I never knew anybody who worked downtown. They worked at Boeing, or in their own burb, or in other parts of Seattle.)

        I used the Rainier stops for two kinds of trips. One, to transfer to the 7 to Value Village, which was was in the supermarket-looking building a block north of Mt Baker Station (which recently had a Grocery Outlet). Two, to visit a friend who lived in Mt Baker. His sister worked at the Baskin-Robbins. They always drove her home by car even though it was less than a mile away, because they considered the neighborhood too unsafe for her to walk. Later my friend and I both went to the U, and he took the 48.

      7. I-90 itself was South Lake Street according to a sign on it. Part of it may have been related to Atlantic Street somehow.

        The pre-Interstate maps called it US Highway 10. I never saw that so I don’t know what it was like. It seems like I-90 was just a renaming until the full freeway west end was completed in the 1990s. I’ve heard it was the last of the original Interstate projects in the country.

  3. I think the inevitable $5B seismic retrofit provides an opportunity: the cheapest way to build rail literally in the I-5 corridor. You could imagine rail being underneath the freeway for sections south of downtown that are elevated, and a rail viaduct over sections that are not. There will be virtually no land acquisition required, but will require long full closures of the freeway, which are going to have to happen anyway. Some project ideas:

    Portland to Vancouver HSR tracks

    Limited stop bypass connecting TIBS to SODO and Georgetown, and eliminating the south Link frequently bottleneck

    Alternative Sounder South line to Tacoma via the I-5 corridor that can be run seven days a week all day, with stops in Georgetown, Tukwila P&R, maybe Southcenter, KDM, Star Lake, Federal Way (probably have to be at the old transit center/park and ride, where the 177 and 193 start), and Fife. Lakewood peak trips could use fast route to Seattle, while Puyallup trips could be truncated in Tacoma.

    1. Intriguing. It is a limited access over or underpassed right-of-way. Are there any examples of this having been done anywhere?

    2. Things to consider when planning HSR: 27′ clearance (US going with higher than most countries for easier maintenance and less downtime), greater sensitivity to bends and grades than Sounder or auto traffic, required electrification, plans thus far have Seattle’s station in Stadium area (will require a bit of a zag), ….

      1. You would have a better shot of HSR taking over the UP corridor before ever running it along I-5. Add freight tracks to the I-5 corridor? That would be interesting.

      2. To think, where ever tunneling is required we’ll need 2 X Bertha. We can call her Girth-a

  4. It would have been nice if the author would have talked about who uses Five, understanding that if a lot of truckers and the worker bees of this society engaged in work with their trucks are on it then the fantasy of replacing Five with rail becomes even more ridiculous.

    1. The idea is to remove the commuter from I-5, followed by inter-city freight that can be easily replaced by rail (such as hub-to-hub operations). Point-to-point freight and deliveries would have plenty of room as a result, though even then we could do well to use distributed hubs and smaller delivery vans instead of semi-trucks.

  5. If I was going to judge the whole “I-5 Systems Partnership” on the one set of slides about it, linked in the main post, I’d say its emphasis on demand growth as a condition I-5 responds to, not one it has a part in causing, and its emphasis on congestion as a cause of pollution, sure make it look like an effort to build a sense of inevitability around freeway expansion.

  6. My choice would be a high speed rail line with connections to regional commuter lines that connect to local lines we would have a lane and shoulder each way for freight trucks and create a new freight highway

  7. Seems to me that the best chance of improving things from a transit/planet standpoint is to add HOT lanes. I am not a big fan of them — I prefer HOV lanes. But since the powers that be are reluctant to convert HOV 2 to HOV 3 (even when the change is obviously justified) I feel like HOT is the only way to go. I could easily see them converting the existing lanes as a means to pay for all the work that needs to be done. This would enable better express service, even as Link covers some of the same area. An express from Everett to Lynnwood, for example, would be faster than the train, and probably have more stops (it would have stops in Everett before it got on the freeway). If memory serves, HOT lanes have always been added, not converted. But I think it is possible that some conversion could occur, especially if the state took a fiscally responsible position. The only area where I could see them being added would be between Marysville and Everett. This is not only terrible for bus riders trying to get between the two areas, but it causes backups for HOV riders just going between Lynnwood and Everett.

    I think that would be the best course of action, although I think it is also possible that the state keeps doing what it has been doing. Raise gas taxes and build excessive freeways while spending very little money on maintenance.

  8. For the stretch from I-90 to the ship canal tear the damn thing down, build some housing and shops and parks on the ROW and put a couple truck only tunnels underneath.

    The land must be worth north of 10 Billion dollars at least scraped clear and worth infinity once redeveloped.

    Vancouver BC does great without a frickin freeway plowed through it.

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