Government engineers had drawn up a freeway over South Lake Union to encircle downtown; a 14-lane version of I-90 that would have trenched the Mount Baker neighborhood rather than pass through tunnels; and the R.H. Thomson Expressway that would have stretched from the Highway 520 bridge and into Central Area.
What do University of Washington students, Montlake homeowners, the League of Women Voters and the Black Panther Party have in common?
Their coalition resisted a Seattle plan in the late 1960s for freeways through the Central Area, Rainier Valley, South Lake Union and Lake City, during the golden age of automobile travel and three years after new Interstate 5.
Government engineers had drawn up a Bay Freeway over South Lake Union to encircle downtown; a 14-lane version of I-90 that would have trenched the Mount Baker neighborhood rather than pass through tunnels; and most famously the R.H. Thomson Expressway that would have stretched from the Highway 520 bridge past the Washington Park Arboretum and into Central Area (then a predominantly black neighborhood) and Rainier Valley, plus a spur north to Lake City.
The Thomson Expressway was ended by citizen vote in 1972, while I-90 was reduced and designed for center lanes to eventually be converted to a mass transit route. During this era, another ballot measure saved historic Pike Place Market from redevelopment.
Fifty years later, “Seattle’s Freeway Revolt: A Directory of Historical Resources” has been posted by Seattle Public Library, to make searching easier for hundreds of history and transportation buffs.
Some sections of the 113-page guide contain dates and titles of the records that exist online, while others contain hyperlinks for people to read maps and reports directly. Many documents must be found in person, for instance by visiting the top floor of the Central Library.
“You can’t just walk into the library and say ‘I want to read about the freeway revolt,’ ” said Priscilla Arsove, a member of Seattle Activists Remembered, Celebrated and Honored (ARCH). So researchers built the archive with help from an $8,000 grant by 4 Culture, using the King County lodging tax, she said.
Previously, ARCH won City Council support and a written commitment to maintain four columns and a crossbeam of the partly built Thomson Expressway, as permanent ruins marking what was not built.
This summer, a documentary by filmmaker Minda Martin is to be released. A trailer can be found here. Were it not for the citizen activists, Seattle today would have one of the world’s most concentrated freeway grids.