Congratulations to the Washington Department of Transportation, owner of I-5, one of the “worst highways in America” and a “freeway without a future,” according to a new report from the urban planning group Congress for the New Urbanism.
And congratulations to us, the residents of Seattle, for having somehow managed to put up with I-5 for as long as we have, even though it’s literally killing us.
Seattle’s I-5 ditch was one of fifteen American urban freeways that CNU identified as needing an overhaul — either getting a complete makeover, or else getting rid of them altogether and rebuilding the communities that were destroyed when federal planners bulldozed the once-healthy neighborhoods in the 1950s.
Rather than killing I-5 completely, CNU is calling for a lid, covering the trench with housing and parks and businesses. Lidding the freeway could generate billions in economic activity and provide space for
10 new public parks (Update: ten ACRES of new public parks) and 500 units of affordable housing, according to a 2020 study by the city.
But when asked his thoughts on the proposal, Governor Jay Inslee said he hadn't even thought about it.
When you look at before-and-after photos, it’s clear just how much Seattle lost when I-5 was built. People lived there, they used to work there, walk there, go to work there. You used to be able to walk down from Capitol Hill to swim in South Lake Union. Now there’s a gigantic void in the way that cuts off half of the city from the other half, ripping through neighborhoods that have a shortage of green space.
The CNU report notes that promises of a lid on I-5 go back to before it was even built, and that Seattle was one of the first cities in the US to cover its freeways. (Little caps by the convention center and by Mount Baker cover the road.) A lid doesn’t solve all of the problems of I-5 — only removing the freeway altogether would do that — but last year a study from the city of Seattle determined that lidding is indeed possible and would result in significant benefits, such as new housing and parks.
I ran into Governor Inslee a few weeks ago at the Seattle Aquarium during a bill signing and asked for his thoughts on lidding I-5. “I really haven’t given thought to it,” said Mister Climate Change. Cool, cool cool cool. Real profile in leadership there.
“We invite the Governor's direct support and leadership,” says Scott Bonjukian, co-chair of the Lid I-5 steering committee. They’d like to see Inslee promote the lid as a long-term capital program, Bonjukian says, since Inslee has a direct line to federal transportation officials. If he cared, Inslee could also make further study a priority in the state transportation budget.
A planning group called the I-5 Systems Partnership has already identified the need for freeway overhauls in the region, but this year legislators tried to block any further work on the issue over petty political squabbles. (Democrats from the suburbs wanted to “send a message” that they wanted to be more involved in the process, according to House Transportation Chair Jake Fey.)
But the longer we wait, the shittier our lives will become.
“Freeway lids have the potential to treat stormwater, clean the air, and reduce noise pollution, as well as reduce the urban heat-island effect and provide habitat for wildlife,” Bonjukian says.
Those benefits, he argues, align with Inslee’s expressed interest in the environment. “His climate change leadership could also ensure HOV and transit lanes are completed throughout the corridor and promote a lid design that avoids building new parking and instead inspires walking, bicycling, and transit trips.”
Looking way into the future, if I-5 were converted to high-speed rail, a lid would be an excellent place for a Seattle station.
Personally, I’d like to see I-5 completely wiped out — the sooner the better. But a lot of stars would have to align in order for that to happen. We’d need to create an alternative means of moving hundreds of thousands of people through the region, which is not impossible; other cities have done it. We’ve even done it here on a smaller scale!
But removing I-5 (and, I hope, all cars from Seattle) is a much longer-term dream. “The city has a complicated relationship with Interstate 5 because all of us are dependent on it,” Bonjukian says. “There are not enough reliable multimodal connections to the suburbs. Our transportation network still has a ways to go.”
A lid would be a step in the right direction, at least. And the federal government is starting to realize that when they built the country’s freeway network over a half-century ago, they fucked up. Lawmakers such as Delaware’s Sen. Tom Carper are pushing the "Reconnecting Communities Act," a bill that would fund freeway removal and lidding.
“We first want to make sure Seattle is eligible for the grant programs in the Act,” Bonjukian says, “and then we need to get this passed through Congress this year so that cities can apply for funding.”
Sounds like a good start. So, Governor, are you ready to give thought to it now?