Come, visit beautiful Washington state! Marvel at the gorgeous asphalt! Thrill to the sight of traffic-clogged arterials! DELIGHT in the majesty of Interstate Five, Seattle’s grand gash, a trench of sorrows where you can enjoy the quadruple-ecstasies of being stuck in traffic, churning out toxic pollution, contributing to oil wars, and taking up space that could have instead been used to relieve the burden on our woefully inadequate housing supply! Highways, is there any downside???
Maybe someday Seattle will unburden itself from the curse that is I-5. But until then, we can at least do the next best thing, and bury it underground like a dead skunk festering in a backyard. For years, planners have been campaigning for a lid on top of I-5, covering the scar with housing, parks, and useful space not unlike what already exists near the Convention Center, over a short span of I-90, and on a blip’s-worth of Mercer Island.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes, yes it would be lovely. So why are Democrats in Olympia trying to stop it?
If you are not the kind of person who trembles with pleasure at the thought of reading engrossed striking amendments to substitute Senate bills, allow me to direct your attention to just the relevant section of the proposed budget, contained in SB 5165 — specifically, Section 218, paragraph 3; and section 916, paragraph 8: The state “may not expend any amounts provided in this section on a long-range plan or corridor scenario analysis for I-5 from Tumwater to Marysville.”
This is a fancy way for legislators to tell the Department of Transportation that they’re not allowed to conduct any long-range I-5 planning for a chain of big cities. By restricting spending on the “Tumwater to Marysville” span, they’re effectively shooting down projects for Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia.
So … why the what? What is that language doing there, anyway?
Well, it turns out it’s there to “send a message,” according to House Transportation Chair Jake Fey.
You see, back in 2018, the Washington Department of Transportation convened an “I-5 System Partnership” representing various interests in that region to analyze how the highway was performing and whether it could be better. You will be SHOCKED by what they found: “The I-5 system is broken,” the group agreed, and “waiting to fix it will only cost us all more.”
After zeroing-in on some problems, in 2019 the group recommended an additional study to identify specific improvements needed along the route, which they estimated would cost about $5 million to conduct. From there, they applied for a grant of about $4 million from the US Department of Transportation, with another $750,000 to be paid by the state and $300,000 by Seattle.
Not everyone thought that was a great idea.
“It seemed back in ‘19 that … there was no way we could fund it, and the cost to do this planning was pretty high,” Fey explained when reached by phone. He recalled at the time, it seemed that it made more fiscal sense to put the work off until some unspecified future date, but “despite telling WSDOT 'no,' they went ahead and applied for federal money.”
They didn’t get the grant, and the project has stalled since then — in part because subsequent transportation bills have blocked any more long-term planning on that corridor. Legislators “felt the need to send a message that you get a little bit of federal money, but the remainder has to be paid by the state,” Fey says.
And that, say lid advocates, would prevent any progress on capping our miserable freeway problem.
“Our assumption would be that lidding on the current configuration would be challenging,” says Scott Bonjukian, one of the leading figures pushing for a lid. That means it would likely need to be incorporated into larger highway planning projects — a nice little side-dish that could accompany, for example, seismic retrofitting.
According to Bonjukian’s organization, Lid I-5, “We believe at least $5 million is needed for the Washington State Department of Transportation to lay this foundation for eventually lidding I-5.” That doesn’t seem like a huge amount, given that one current proposal sets aside nearly $6 billion for freeways.
The good news is that the latest Senate version of the transportation bill, SB 5482, removed the “Tumwater to Marysville” restriction that existed in the previous Senate version. (They also got rid of an unrelated proposal to tax bicycles, which was just BANANAS.)
The Senate bill is being put forward by Senator Steve Hobbs. In an email, his office noted that his spending proposal, known as Forward WA, includes $6 million for I-5 planning that builds “upon existing work underway in the corridor.”
For everyone keeping a tally at home, that’s slightly more than the I-5 System Partnership said they needed in 2019, when they applied for a grant that would have been funded mostly by federal rather than state dollars.
At any rate, it’s nice that the Senate has removed one obstacle to lidding I-5 in Seattle. We’ve got a little over two weeks for the House and Senate to agree on exactly what the final version of the transportation bill will contain. I'm continuing to bother both Hobbs and Fey to see exactly where they stand on the lidding project.
Of course, lidding of I-5 is just a tiny fragment of the issues connected to the bills — they’re proposing over $5 billion for “Highway Preservation” versus $391 million for bike/ped projects and grants, when it really should be the other way around. The goal of all transpo planning, as far as I’m concerned, should be to eliminate the need for cars altogether — and sure, we may not get there in the near term. But at the very least, if we’re very very lucky, we might at least inch ever so slightly closer to making I-5 a tiny bit less bad.