NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, September 8th, 2021

Seattle voters eager for I‑5 to be modernized with seismic, accessibility improvements

Six decades ago, the Wash­ing­ton State Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion (WSDOT) set up an office to begin clear­ing land for the “Seat­tle Free­way,” a mas­sive project intend­ed to cre­ate new right of way for auto­mo­bile traf­fic through the city’s cen­tral core along with the neigh­bor­hoods to the north and south of it.

Interstate 5 shield

Shield for Inter­state 5

Over the span of sev­er­al years, con­struc­tion crews relo­cat­ed or demol­ished thou­sands of struc­tures on 4,500 parcels of land, lit­er­al­ly split­ting the city in half in the process.

The result was a twen­ty and a half mile artery for auto­mo­biles stretch­ing from one edge of the city to another.

How­ev­er, it would not be known as the “Seat­tle Free­way,” nor would it be signed with a tra­di­tion­al state or “U.S.” route num­ber, for Con­gress and Pres­i­dent Eisen­how­er had agreed in the late 1950s on leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate a new inter­state high­way sys­tem for the Unit­ed States.

It would take a cou­ple more decades, but by the end of the 1970s, Inter­state 5’s ini­tial build­out was com­plete. Des­ig­nat­ed by Con­gress as the main north-south route serv­ing the Unit­ed States’ Left Coast, Inter­state 5 is the only high­way that goes from the Cana­di­an bor­der at its north­ern end all the way to the Mex­i­can bor­der at its south­ern end, with a length of 1,381.29 miles/2,222.97 kilometers.

I‑5’s Seat­tle sec­tion is among its busiest. The twen­ty-mile Emer­ald City seg­ment nowa­days sees lev­els of traf­fic that would have been unimag­in­able in the 1950s when it was designed. The same is true of I‑5 seg­ments in oth­er met­ro­pol­i­tan areas, like Los Ange­les or Port­land, where I‑5 cross­es the Colum­bia Riv­er.

Despite I‑5’s impor­tance to Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, and the Pacif­ic North­west, it is falling apart. Decades of heavy use and inad­e­quate main­te­nance have left the high­way in increas­ing­ly bad shape. The Wash­ing­ton State Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, aware of the need for action, has respond­ed with a series of leg­isla­tive­ly-autho­rized projects that it col­lec­tive­ly calls “Revive I‑5″.

“Com­plet­ing this crit­i­cal preser­va­tion work will take more than a decade, into the 2030s,” WSDOT explains on its project web­site, refer­ring to the dif­fi­cul­ty of work­ing on the high­way while also keep­ing it open to traffic.

“Man­ag­ing traf­fic and con­ges­tion dur­ing pave­ment preser­va­tion work requires care­ful and coor­di­nat­ed plan­ning that con­sid­ers time of year, region­al spe­cial events, changes to the tran­sit sys­tem and oth­er state or local road clo­sures. All sched­uled lane and ramp clo­sures for these preser­va­tion projects are care­ful­ly timed. How­ev­er, emer­gency repairs could hap­pen at any time. Sched­uled work reduces the chances that an inci­dent requir­ing emer­gency repairs may occur.”

As with the State Route 520 float­ing bridge replace­ment project and Alaskan Way Viaduct replace­ment tun­nel project, WSDOT is in a race against the clock. Wash­ing­ton State is earth­quake coun­try and a tem­blor could strike at any time, with lit­tle to no warn­ing, caus­ing mas­sive dam­age to I‑5 and oth­er infrastructure.

While I‑5’s integri­ty and future is often dis­cussed at state, coun­ty, or city trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee work ses­sions and at WSDOT staff meet­ings, it gets far less atten­tion than it should in the press and in oth­er settings.

As part of our July 2021 sur­vey of the Emer­ald City elec­torate, we decid­ed to ask Seat­tle vot­ers a series of ques­tions about Inter­state 5 ear­li­er this sum­mer to ascer­tain their aware­ness of the facil­i­ty’s seis­mic risks and access improve­ment needs, and their enthu­si­asm for mod­ern­iz­ing the highway.

First, we asked about aware­ness of I‑5’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to quakes. We includ­ed a map with our ques­tion show­ing high­ways in King Coun­ty, I‑5 includ­ed, that are crit­i­cal to region­al mobil­i­ty and at risk of earth­quake dam­age. We asked respon­dents how con­cerned they are about I‑5’s resilience, and found that the vast major­i­ty of Seat­tle vot­ers are either some­what or very concerned.

QUESTION: The map below depicts the state of risk of major high­ways in our area to severe dam­age in a major earth­quake. After review­ing the map, please indi­cate how con­cerned you are about the capa­bil­i­ty of Inter­state 5 to sur­vive a major earth­quake in Seat­tle and be avail­able for emer­gency use.Interstate 5 seismic risks map

ANSWERS:

  • Con­cerned: 82% 
    • Very con­cerned: 38%
    • Some­what con­cerned: 44%
  • Not wor­ried: 13% 
    • Not wor­ried: 10%
    • Not wor­ried at all: 3%
  • Unsure: 5%

Note: The map above has been updat­ed slight­ly for clar­i­ty in prepa­ra­tion for pub­lic dis­sem­i­na­tion since the poll field­ed in mid-July, but is oth­er­wise iden­ti­cal to the ver­sion that poll respon­dents saw when tak­ing the survey. 

Over eight in ten vot­ers described them­selves as con­cerned, ver­sus just 13% who stat­ed they were not wor­ried. Only 5% said they were unsure.

Most Seat­tleites clear­ly appre­ci­ate that I‑5 is at risk of fail­ure in an earth­quake, which is not sur­pris­ing, but nev­er­the­less reassuring.

Next, we asked vot­ers about improv­ing I‑5’s flow through Seat­tle’s down­town and First Hill neigh­bor­hoods. In par­tic­u­lar, we want­ed to know how vot­ers would react to the idea of relo­cat­ing some of the numer­ous entry and exit ramps that make this sec­tion of the high­way need­less­ly treach­er­ous to navigate.

We found plen­ty of enthusiasm:

QUESTION: The map below shows the entry and exit ramps to Inter­state 5 in down­town Seattle.

I-5 central city core ramps map

After review­ing the map, please spec­i­fy whether you would sup­port or oppose relo­cat­ing some of the Inter­state 5 ramps in down­town Seat­tle if this were deter­mined to be fea­si­ble for improv­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion and safe­ty issues.

ANSWERS:

  • Sup­port: 77% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 43%
    • Some­what sup­port: 34%
  • Oppose: 12%
    • Some­what oppose: 6%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 6%
  • Unsure: 6%

Note: The map above has been updat­ed slight­ly for clar­i­ty in prepa­ra­tion for pub­lic dis­sem­i­na­tion since the poll field­ed in mid-July, but is oth­er­wise iden­ti­cal to the ver­sion that poll respon­dents saw when tak­ing the survey. 

More than three-fourths of respon­dents indi­cat­ed sup­port for relo­cat­ing ramps.

Final­ly, we asked respon­dents to weigh in on I‑5’s future in their own words.

We offered the fol­low­ing as a ques­tion prompt:

QUESTION: Should the state pri­or­i­tize mod­ern­iz­ing the stretch of Inter­state 5 that runs through Seat­tle, from the north­ern city lim­it with Shore­line to the south­ern city lim­it with Tukwila?

ANSWERS:

  • 40% wrote sup­port­ive answers
  • 30% did not express a clear stance or made oth­er comments
  • 18% indi­cat­ed opposition
  • 12% expressed ambiva­lence or said they did­n’t know

The plu­ral­i­ty who wrote sup­port­ive answers expressed a lot of enthusiasm.

“100% would sup­port mod­ern­iz­ing the stretch of I‑5. It’s been a huge prob­lem with traf­fic and for peo­ple com­mut­ing to and out of Seat­tle,” wrote one.

“I‑5 is in such bad shape and neg­a­tive­ly dis­sects the city,” not­ed anoth­er. “It needs to be redone to bet­ter serve trav­el­ers, reunite neigh­bor­hoods it now divides and be cli­mate neutral.”

“Def­i­nite­ly need [I‑5 to be] more tran­sit ready and earth­quake safe,” agreed yet anoth­er respon­dent. “Sin­gle car dri­ving should be dis­cour­aged and the city needs to great­ly improve mass transit.”

A fourth wrote: “The state absolute­ly needs to pri­or­i­tize this project. The area is so con­gest­ed at near­ly all times of the day. It needs to be made safer also by mak­ing sure peo­ple can’t throw items from the over­pass­es onto cars below.”

“I would take pride in Seat­tle if it was one of the only cities in Amer­i­ca to actu­al­ly have its infra­struc­ture up to and safer than code,” said a fifth, who iden­ti­fied them­selves as a young Seat­tleite. “Mak­ing it more tran­sit friend­ly may be worth it, but upgrad­ing it so it’s safer than America’s bridges gen­er­al­ly is vital.”

Many of the small num­ber in oppo­si­tion sug­gest­ed it sim­ply was­n’t feasible.

“At this point just wait for the quake it will hap­pen before any con­struc­tion project could ever be com­plet­ed,” one respon­dent said.

“Can’t do every­thing,” wrote another.

“I do not con­sid­er this a pri­or­i­ty. We have more, seri­ous issues that need greater atten­tion, urgency, and fund­ing than cre­at­ing more con­ve­nience on our free­ways,” said a third, appar­ent­ly hav­ing inter­pret­ed “mod­ern­iza­tion” to mean “widen­ing”.

Oth­er respon­dents called for fix­ing the West Seat­tle Bridge first. (SDOT cur­rent­ly expects to par­tial­ly reopen the bridge to traf­fic next year.)

And still oth­er respon­dents expressed inter­est in how WSDOT would do the work with­out cre­at­ing addi­tion­al traf­fic prob­lems for I‑5 users.

“How will you min­i­mize dura­tion and sever­i­ty of traf­fic dis­rup­tions dur­ing this mod­ern­iza­tion process?” one respon­dent won­dered. “I‑5 in Taco­ma has been under con­tin­u­ous con­struc­tion for 10+ years.”

(WSDOT actu­al­ly has a pret­ty detailed traf­fic mit­i­ga­tion plan for the work it’s already got fund­ing to do, which is one rea­son why the work has such a long time­frame. Still, as with all con­struc­tion projects, there will be disruptions.)

Our poll of 617 like­ly August 2021 Seat­tle vot­ers was in the field through Mon­day, July 12th, through Thurs­day, July 15th. All respon­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed online. The poll was con­duct­ed by Change Research for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, and has a mod­eled mar­gin of error of 4.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

One of the themes run­ning through the open-end­ed respons­es was a desire for more and bet­ter tran­sit. Even though our prompt was about mod­ern­iz­ing I‑5, quite a few respon­dents spoke of want­i­ng to fin­ish build­ing out Sound Tran­sit’s Link light rail sys­tem and pur­sue poli­cies that reduce auto­mo­bile dependence.

That’s fresh and use­ful evi­dence that Seat­tleites under­stand that an auto-cen­tric trans­porta­tion sys­tem is nei­ther sus­tain­able or desirable.

The future is mul­ti­modal. Bet­ter tran­sit will lib­er­ate the Emer­ald City from car depen­dence, enabling more and more trips to be tak­en by walk­ing, bicy­cling, rid­ing the bus or train, or a com­bi­na­tion of all three. With that said, respon­dents do agree that we must invest in I‑5’s future. Mak­ing the high­way seis­mi­cal­ly safe will improve our abil­i­ty to recov­er from a major dis­as­ter and will pro­tect all users of the high­way, includ­ing those in bus­es as well as cars and trucks.

Only a frac­tion of what is need­ed to ful­ly mod­ern­ize I‑5 has been appro­pri­at­ed so far by the Leg­is­la­ture. Law­mak­ers are cur­rent­ly con­tem­plat­ing autho­riz­ing more funds for I‑5 by enact­ing a new trans­porta­tion pack­age that would build on the invest­ments approved in Con­nect­ing Wash­ing­ton six years ago.

Mean­while, Democ­rats in Con­gress are try­ing to reach agree­ment on leg­is­la­tion request­ed by Pres­i­dent Joe Biden that would make major invest­ments in infra­struc­ture along with Amer­i­ca’s social con­tract. If those efforts suc­ceed, I‑5 will almost cer­tain­ly be one of the facil­i­ties that benefits.

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