Seattle’s Concrete Dragons


Seattle might be America’s Smartest City, but when it comes to transportation, we’ve always been appallingly inept.

When I wrote these words in early 2015, Seattle remained appallingly mired in the Bertha fiasco, with our world-infamous tunnel-boring machine still stuck underground after more than a year, and Pioneer Square threatening to sink due to the seismic side effects of the Bertha rescue operation. The Bertha fiasco had then made Seattle a civic laughingstock among major American cities, as reported in the pages of none other than The New York Times. Yet it was only the latest episode in a long history of ridiculous decisions made by Seattle citizens and/or civic leaders, all related to transportation — always a contentious topic in a city as geographically confined as Seattle.

Seattle’s history of collective transportation ineptitude arguably began in the year 1912. That was the year when Seattle voters rejected the Bogue Plan. Named after civil engineer and municipal planning director Virgil Bogue (1846-1916), the Bogue Plan would have established Seattle’s first comprehensive civic plan along with several major civic improvements, including a large train station on the southern shore of Lake Union, a civic center complex of government buildings in the recently leveled Denny Regrade, the possible acquisition of Mercer Island for a city park, and — crucially, for the history that follows here — a rail transit line linking Seattle and Kirkland by way of a tunnel beneath Lake Washington.

The Bogue Plan was very much a product of the Progressive Era that peaked during the 1910s. Bogue, a respected city planner, civil engineer, and colleague of the Olmsted Brothers, was retained by Seattle’s Municipal Plans Commission (created in 1910 by Seattle voters) to prepare a detailed plan to guide the city’s future development. He had the foresight to imagine Seattle in the twenty-first century as a major metropolis of more than one million people, extending as far as the eastern side of Lake Washington — and his proposal was designed for that long-term vision.

Bogue submitted his proposal to the city on August 24, 1911. On March 5, 1912, in a special municipal election, Seattle voters rejected the Bogue Plan by a 10,000-vote margin. During the weeks preceding that election, Seattle’s three leading daily newspapers had all editorialized against the plan, and public confusion over its potential implementation costs contributed to its defeat by a vote of 24,966 to 14,506. Thus, Seattle collectively rejected its first opportunity for regional rapid transit, more than a century ago. This would not be the last of our fair city’s appalling transportation decisions.


What would Seattle look like today without Interstate 5 slicing straight through it?

Once upon a time, Seattle was not dominated by the concrete monstrosity that presently divides the city into two absurdly disconnected halves like the result of a brain operation gone horribly awry. In fact, citizen activists once strongly opposed the unfortunate location of I-5 through the heart of Seattle while it was still under construction.

One demonstration of that opposition occurred on June 1, 1961, when a group of roughly 100 Seattle residents staged a protest march against the impending construction of I-5 through the city. Since the new freeway was already a done deal at the time, having been previously approved by the Washington State Legislature, the march was aimed at persuading the Seattle city government to construct a lid over the portion of I-5 that would run directly through downtown.

This protest was actually an anomaly, and there was in fact minimal opposition to the I-5 route during the early planning stages, since the freeway was planned mostly through quiet bureaucratic process in Olympia until late in the game. The Seattle portion of I-5 began conceptually as the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma Superhighway in 1951, and was approved by the Washington State Legislature in 1953. Funds for construction were provided by the Federal Defense Highway Act of 1956, signed by President Eisenhower. Why the very heart of Seattle, rather than an alternative route through the then-underdeveloped eastern side of Lake Washington, was chosen for the location of a major interstate freeway is a lengthy bureaucratic story in itself.

The protest group consisted mostly of First Hill and downtown neighborhood activists concerned about the negative effects the new freeway might have upon the quality of everyday life in the area. Escorted by Seattle police, the group marched along the proposed freeway route through a seven-block stretch of downtown, with many carrying placards proclaiming “Block the Ditch” and “Let’s Have a Lid on It,” among other noteworthy slogans.

Among the organizers of the protest were members of the First Hill Improvement Club and architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993). Best known as the primary architect of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Thiry was also one of the first Seattle citizens to propose a lid over I-5 where new businesses and apartments could be built. Downtown interests also supported the proposed lid, due to their concerns about the loss of parking spaces and the increase in automobile traffic from the freeway. Among other significant local figures who had publicly opposed the freeway route was former Seattle mayor George F. Cotterill, who was concerned about the potential dangers of building the freeway through a slide-prone area.

The citizen activist campaign against the proposed I-5 route continued on September 14, 1961, when a coalition of First Hill residents and Seattle civic leaders spoke out against the route during a public hearing held in Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus. The hearing drew a crowd of some 200 First Hill residents, along with Thiry and local architect and activist Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985).

Objections against the route were raised there from both pragmatic and aesthetic angles. Steinbrueck, who represented the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and who would later lead the movement to save Seattle’s Pike Place Market from demolition, cautioned that there was a need for further study of automobile traffic patterns and pedestrian access between downtown and First Hill before finalizing the proposed route. The First Hill Improvement Club, assisted by Thiry, advocated a landscaped lid over the downtown portion of the freeway between Madison and University Streets and between Pike Street and Olive Way for aesthetic reasons and to preserve economic development downtown.

The campaign against I-5’s location through Seattle was ultimately too little, too late. After nearly a year of public debate on the topic prior to the Meany Hall hearing, Washington State Governor Albert Rosellini demanded a halt to the construction delays on the freeway project, despite the fact that the lid issue was not yet resolved. The Seattle portion of Interstate 5 would be officially completed on January 31, 1967. The lid desired by the June 1, 1961, marchers was finally realized (albeit only in a limited area) when Freeway Park was dedicated on July 4, 1976.

Another historic failure of Seattle’s electorate to support regional rapid transit occurred in 1968 and 1970, when Seattle and King County voters rejected the Forward Thrust transit propositions. Those propositions were part of the Forward Thrust ballot initiatives, which were a series of bond propositions presented to King County voters in special elections on February 13, 1968, and May 19, 1970. They were designed by the Forward Thrust Committee, which was founded in 1966 by the celebrated local citizen activist James Ellis (b. 1921).

Seven of the twelve propositions on the 1968 ballot were successful. Of the five remaining propositions, four were repackaged for a vote in 1970, but were defeated again due mainly to the local economic malaise of the Boeing Bust. Had they been approved, those propositions would have mandated a regional rail transit system, along with new storm water control facilities, new community centers, and new King County public health and safety facilities.

The Forward Thrust package’s total local cost of $615.5 million apparently alarmed voters amid the deepening Boeing Bust. The failure of the rapid transit propositions meant that a nearly $900 million federal funding earmark that had been secured by U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson for regional rapid transit in King County went instead to fund Atlanta, Georgia’s MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) system — Seattle’s loss, Atlanta’s gain.

James Ellis and other local civic leaders disbanded Forward Thrust after the 1970 ballot defeat.


Although the opposition to I-5’s construction through Seattle was minimal and moot, the damage done to Seattle’s general quality of life by its location would soon motivate much more fervent efforts against future freeway construction within the city limits. Beginning in 1966, a citizen activist group mobilized to stop the construction of another massive freeway project that, if completed, would have further diminished the now-globally-noted quality of life in Seattle. That project was the R. H. Thomson Expressway.

Anyone well familiar with Seattle’s State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington likely remembers the curious sight of the erstwhile exits on SR 520’s southern side, near the Montlake end, that once led away from SR 520 and then abruptly stopped, leading ultimately to nowhere. Prior to their demolition beginning in 2015, one could see these concrete curiosities from a distance while driving across SR 520 to or from Bellevue, or up close while engaging in the popular Seattle pastime of canoeing through the lilypad-saturated waters of the Washington Park Arboretum.

Seattle’s “ramps to nowhere” were once the modern remnants of the R. H. Thomson Expressway, a major infrastructure construction project that, had it been completed, would have stretched along the full length of Seattle’s eastern edge, from Interstate 90 in South Seattle through the Central Area, Montlake, and the Arboretum, and onward through Lake City towards a northern interchange with an also-planned Bothell Freeway. The Thomson Expressway project was named after Seattle’s erstwhile city engineer Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949), the man responsible for, among other major city development projects, the massive regrading of the city’s downtown core at the turn of the twentieth century.

Seattle voters initially approved the Thomson Expressway project in 1960, but after inevitable changes of plan that would have bulldozed much of the Central Area and Montlake became apparent to local neighborhood activists in 1966, an ad hoc coalition calling itself Citizens Against the R. H. Thomson (CARHT) organized to oppose the project, thus bringing Seattle firmly into the fold of the Freeway Revolts.

Along with the high-profile nationwide antiwar and civil rights movements that played out during the 1960s, a low-profile yet high-impact citizen activist movement against major freeway construction projects also emerged during that decade. Citizens concerned about the negative impact such projects would have upon the quality of urban life organized to fight such projects in several major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and, last but not least, Seattle, which first became involved in the Freeway Revolts on June 1, 1961, the date of the aforementioned “Stop the Ditch” protest march. From that humble beginning, our local freeway revolt would reach fruition with the CARHT campaign.

In April 1967, Helix, at the time Seattle’s reigning alternative newspaper, reported on the beginnings of the movement against the Thompson Expressway. In a satirical commentary that reflected much of the growing skepticism among Seattle residents concerning the city’s planned freeway projects, Helix writer Jon Gallant wryly observed that “long-range planning is the essence of progress, so Seattle’s long-range planners should bear in mind that the [Thompson Expressway] is only a temporary stage. The next step in the foreseeable future is clearly the removal of expressways.”

Gallant continued, satirically opining (as well as hinting at the true beneficiaries of such projects) that “perhaps the master plan could coordinate the two activities, so that the demolition crew moved closely behind the construction crew, tearing down each section of the expressway as soon as it was built. That would be progress with a capital P.”

Seattle’s heaviest involvement in the Freeway Revolts occurred between 1969 and 1972, the latter being the year of passage of a ballot referendum that withdrew funding for both the Thomson project and the proposed Bay Freeway, a similar project that would have run east-to-west from SR 520 through the Cascade neighborhood (now commonly known since 2007 as the Amazon-dominated South Lake Union) and on to a connection with Highway 99 near Seattle Center. The surge began on May 4, 1969, when several thousand Seattle citizens marched through the Arboretum to publicly protest the Thomson project. The march was organized by CARHT, and the Arboretum was chosen for the march location because the majority of that popular landmark would have been destroyed to make way for the expressway.

One of the key leaders of CARHT was Maynard Arsove (1922-2010), a University of Washington professor of mathematics and a local environmental activist. In the February 1969 issue of Puget Soundings, a local not-for-profit community newsletter, Arsove published an essay on the anti-freeway movement that was then gathering steam in Seattle and nationwide. That essay was later published in the April 3, 1969, issue of Helix under the title “Concrete Dragons.” There, Arsove articulated the increasing skepticism about notions of technological progress that fueled the Freeway Revolts:

“In America in general, and here in Puget Sound in particular, roaring concrete dragons breathing noxious fumes have been clawing and eating their way through our neighborhoods and parklands, spreading social and environmental destruction as they go. These are the freeways and expressways built in the name of progress with our own tax dollars. The miracle of courage that may yet save what is left of our metropolitan regions consists of a rising public indignation, based on growing awareness of the social and environmental values at stake.”

In a passage lamenting “the de facto planning of Seattle and its metropolitan region by highway engineers,” Arsove described a potential “one-mile grid” of freeways — i.e., a grid several miles in scope, with freeways at roughly one-mile intervals running both north-south and east-west — that could have covered Seattle’s metropolitan core if the Thomson Expressway and similar projects then being planned were completed:

“The Northwest (or Alaskan) Freeway, the Aurora Expressway, the Central Freeway (Interstate-5), and the R. H. Thomson Expressway [would] all run north-south at one mile intervals. To feed cross-lake traffic into this freeway network, a total of five Lake Washington bridges has been proposed. Along with their cross-linkages and feeder roads, these freeways [would] virtually cover the face of the Seattle area with a one-mile highway grid. If actually carried out, this would give Seattle the densest freeway network of any city in the world.”

Arsove sardonically concluded, “From ‘All-American City’ in 1967 we could thus advance to ‘All-Freeway City’ by 1987.”

CARHT was not the only group to oppose new freeway construction projects in Seattle at the time. In 1968, Citizens Against Freeways (CAF) organized to oppose the construction of State Route 522. The plan for SR 522 was to connect the Eastside with I-5 by linking Interstate 405 with I-5 by looping around the north end of Lake Washington, “deep ditching” through Lake City, and connecting with I-5 near Green Lake. The effort against SR 522 failed, but CAF would later aid CARHT in opposing the Thomson Expressway and Bay Freeway projects.

Aside from the Arboretum march in May 1969, the anti-freeway movement in Seattle at its peak was largely conducted in Seattle City Hall and in the King County Courthouse, rather than through dramatic acts of public protest. (Indeed, in contrast with the antiwar and civil rights movements of the time, the anti-freeway movement was largely led by people well over 30 years of age.) CARHT and CAF both filed suits against the city in 1970, charging that both the Thomson and Bay freeway projects had changed dramatically from what Seattle voters had originally approved in 1960.

Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and the Seattle City Council effectively abandoned the R. H. Thomson Expressway in June 1970 and submitted the project’s final fate to a referendum. That referendum was finally presented to Seattle voters in a special election on February 8, 1972. It passed overwhelmingly by a two-to-one margin, thus revoking authorization for $11.1 million in bonds for the project. That same day, Seattle voters also chose to cancel the proposed Bay Freeway, thus saving Seattle from the fate of the “one-mile grid” that Maynard Arsove had earlier envisioned.

While the construction of the Bay Freeway project was never begun, the Thomson Expressway was already in the starting stages when it was canceled, since the original SR 520 bridge (constructed from 1960 to 1963) had in fact been designed with the expectation that the Thomson Expressway would eventually connect with it. Whence the “ramps to nowhere” that for five long decades remained in the northern end of the Arboretum, making a most curious local landmark.

One of the most poignant historical artifacts of the campaign to stop the R. H. Thomson Expressway can be found in Roger Sale’s 1976 book Seattle: Past to Present, today still considered among the most authoritative introductions to Seattle’s civic and social history. There, one can find a photograph dating from the summer of 1975, taken in the Arboretum, of a group of Seattle-area children and teenagers gleefully leaping from the safely automobile-free remnants of the Thomson Expressway into the water below. For many native and/or longtime Seattleites, diving from the ramps to nowhere into the water below was once a legendary local summertime rite of passage ever since the Thomson project’s cancellation. Like the ramps, that ritual is now merely history. Such is progress: bittersweet, indeed.

And then there’s Bertha.

The infamous tunnel-boring machine that was absurdly named after Seattle’s first woman mayor, Bertha Knight Landes (1868-1943), now stands as the ultimate ironic monument to Seattle’s collective transportation ineptitude. When Seattle held its second world’s fair in 1962, it named that fair the Century 21 Exposition and filled the fairgrounds with spectacular monuments to an imaginary progressive future. How ironic, then, that our civic solution to a drastic transportation dilemma birthed at the beginning of the actual twenty-first century would be regressively based within the rampant car culture that preceded the 1962 fair.

That dilemma began on February 28, 2001, when Seattle was shook by the Nisqually earthquake, the Puget Sound region’s worst seismic event since the Great Alaskan earthquake on March 27, 1964. Crucially, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the ancient and infamous concrete eyesore that once carried up to 110,000 vehicles daily, was damaged in the Nisqually earthquake. Although the damage was merely cosmetic and not structural, it put the city on alert about the potential for future — and possibly fatal — disasters involving the viaduct, whose construction was completed in 1953.

In the Nisqually earthquake’s aftermath, Seattle faced an urgent question: What to do about the viaduct? There were three basic options: replace it with a new, seismically sturdier elevated highway; replace it — at least the part that went through downtown — with an underground tunnel, thereby allowing downtown to connect with the waterfront once again; replace it with a modest four-lane surface street and a walkable waterfront, along with transit upgrades and street improvements in the surrounding area to accommodate traffic overflow.

Despite being the least pragmatic option, the tunnel was eventually railroaded into a done deal by Seattle’s municipal government, Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire, the Downtown Seattle Association, and several of the construction-contract interests who then stood most to gain financially from the resulting project — including and especially Seattle Tunnel Partners, the private contractor hired by the Washington State Department of Transportation to design and build the tunnel.

There’s a telling anecdote from the tunnel’s early planning stages in the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Washington, D.C.-based city planner Jeff Speck:

“[I]n September 2004 . . . Seattle’s Mayor Greg Nickels came to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and brought along the Alaskan Way Viaduct as his planning challenge. Like [San Francisco’s] Embarcadero, the two-deck, six-lane viaduct had been damaged in an earthquake and needed replacement. The state DOT proposed replacing the highway with an elegant surface boulevard . . . and a $4.2 billion highway tunnel.

“‘That sounds perfect — just cut the tunnel!’ the planners around the table shouted in unison. ‘But where will all the traffic go?’ asked the mayor. ‘Not to worry!’ we responded. But we apparently weren’t very convincing, as Mayor Nickels returned to Seattle still committed to the tunnel.”

Thus, even though a group of city planners from several major cities agreed early on that the tunnel option was the wrong choice for Seattle, Nickels wouldn’t listen — and neither did the civic leaders who would absurdly cheerlead for the tunnel later that decade, despite significant popular opposition and early warnings about the potential drawbacks. Three of the primary supporters of the tunnel option during early discussions in Olympia would later occupy crucial positions within Seattle’s city government: Mayor Ed Murray, Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, and City Council member Tom Rasmussen. Murray backed the tunnel as a state legislator, Joncas backed it as president of the Downtown Seattle Association, and Rasmussen backed it while serving on council. While the original proposal called for a cut-and-cover tunnel, the final plan emerged in 2009 when government officials in Seattle and Olympia decided instead on a deep-bore tunnel.

Much like Interstate 5’s location through Seattle, the deep-bore tunnel was opposed by grassroots activists. In March 2011, a coalition of local citizen activists organized under the banner “Protect Seattle Now” (PSN) and mobilized a last-ditch effort to stop the tunnel project by way of a ballot referendum that would allow Seattle voters to decide the ultimate fate of the tunnel. PSN’s organizers placed the referendum on the city’s August 16, 2011, municipal primary-election ballot. PSN’s campaign appeared hopelessly quixotic at that point in time, given how ruthlessly determined the pro-tunnel crowd had then shown itself to be. Ultimately, PSN was outspent massively by tunnel advocates, and the referendum — and therefore the tunnel — was approved by Seattle voters.

Walt Crowley, editor of Helix, went on after that paper’s June 1970 demise to become a noteworthy local citizen activist in his own right, playing a major role, among his many other life accomplishments, in the 1971 campaign to save Pike Place Market from demolition. In his 1995 book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, Crowley had prescient words to say about one of the great paradoxes of progressive activism in Seattle:

“The principles of citizen participation revolutionized local politics in Seattle. It has become a national leader in routinizing public consultation and involvement in its municipal administration under Mayors Wes Uhlman, Charles Royer, and Norm Rice and a solidly liberal and remarkably diverse City Council. Unfortunately, most examples of effective citizen participation [in Seattle city politics] are reactionary, e.g., halting a freeway or unwelcome development. As citizen participants, we have become very good at stopping bad things; we are not so practiced at starting good things.”

Obviously, citizen activists were unable to stop the deep-bore tunnel project, which has now become the worst transportation debacle in Seattle’s history. Clearly, America’s Smartest City still has crucial civic lessons to learn.

Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.