Halfway across South Park’s “little bridge,” a pedestrian walkway spanning Highway 99 near South Henderson Street, the noise of traffic below sometimes reaches 110 decibels. It’s as loud as a jackhammer or a concert and can cause ear damage after 30 minutes of exposure.
This narrow path connects the South Seattle neighborhood’s east and west sides, which are cleaved in two by the 1960s era highway. Walking across the bridge one recent afternoon, Coté Soerens paused to look at the acres of concrete beneath her feet, where sedans and freight trucks rumble between Seattle and SeaTac. A pastor by trade, Soerens was moved to quote the theologian Dr. Willie James Jennings.
“He talks about the illusion of permanence,” she said over the din of diesel engines and compression brakes, “that there are things that you think are permanent. Highways are definitely something that you think are permanent.”
Soerens and Crystal Brown, of the community organization Cultivate South Park, propose that maybe this highway’s permanence is just that: an illusion. Both I-5 to the east and 509 to the west also go to the airport, they point out, and of the three, the stretch of 99 through South Park has the least amount of traffic.
Soerens raised the idea of tearing it out to Brown one day, on a walk through their neighborhood. Imagine, she said, what it could mean to South Park, the tightknit and once-redlined neighborhood whose residents are poorer, more diverse and, on average, die nine years earlier than the rest of Seattle. Think of all that could be done with 40 acres of new space, said Soerens — of the housing or the retail or parks they could build. Think of the cleaner air, the quiet.
“I think it was maybe the way she said it,” said Brown. “And I think that it was the first time my eyes opened up to the fact that the neighborhood is split in half by a freeway with no barrier walls, no anything, really. And I don’t even think I hesitated or took one second. I was like, ‘it sure would.’”
Under the banner of Reconnect South Park (an effort first reported on by the Urbanist), Brown and Soerens make up a piece of a growing push to stall or even reverse highway expansion, particularly through historically marginalized communities. The volume of the conversation is steadily increasing across the country, from New Orleans to Buffalo to Oakland to Washington state.
In Washington, the push and pull is between the ringing alarm bells of climate change or destructive urban planning and the pressure to keep a growing state growing.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called for “righting the wrongs” of highways’ impact on communities of color. The federal infrastructure bill approved by Congress last year includes $1 billion to aid communities hurt by highway construction. Washington state Democrats’ proposed transportation spending bill would include $50 million in grants for “connecting communities.”
It’s a movement driven by dual fronts, said Rick Cole, executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism: climate change and a reckoning with decades of racist urban planning.
“Those scars are deep and long lasting,” he said. “They’re physical and geographic scars that have meant that what were often low-income neighborhoods have had to suffer generations of heightened pollution with real world impacts on the health of children and vulnerable populations.”
For many, the notion of slowing highway expansion or removing them altogether is beyond the pale, especially in a growing state with a bustling shipping economy. Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, dismissed highway-removal proposals as “ludicrous” in a recent interview. The Port of Seattle calls Highway 99 an “essential” state corridor. Out of $16 billion in transportation spending being proposed by Democratic lawmakers in Olympia over the next 16 years, roughly $7 billion is for highway projects or maintenance, including expansion in some places.
But while Washington may not go highway-free anytime soon, the pushback against their inevitability has a newfound resonance in halls of powers. For Soerens, whose three boys sometimes bike the streets of South Park, the stakes are real. “It’s not just an overly idealistic thing,” she said.
Local communities have, for decades, spoken out about the impacts of highways on where they live. In recent years, researchers have begun to quantify that impact.
“One of the things we need at the table is data and models, because we have a government bureaucracy that kind of makes decisions in a certain methodical process and those data models hopefully can point us to what the right solution is and how to get there,” said Julian Marshall, a professor in the University of Washington’s department of civil and environmental engineering.
His research has shown that Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans are exposed to higher levels of harmful particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Highways are contributors to both, particularly the latter.
In 2017, a group of advocates, with researchers from the University of Washington and the Washington State Department of Health, began putting together a map that would put a number to the health impacts of living in each part of the state. Among 19 indicators — including income, proximity to waste facilities, wastewater discharge — the effects of nearby traffic played an outsized role. Even small exposure to diesel emissions and particulate matter is shown to increase chances of early death.
When the map was complete, the results were at once shocking and expected. Low-income and diverse communities near highways — in South King County, Tacoma, Yakima — consistently ranked the highest on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 indicating the most risk. South Park is a 10.
“It was a conversation that was, I think, really, really tough to have for people because it just kind of confirmed that their communities are highly impacted,” said Esther Min, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and researcher for the advocacy organization Front and Centered.
Front and Centered wants to put the map, which lives on the state Department of Health website, to work. They’ve drafted legislation that would ban any highway expansion in areas with a ranking of 9 or 10. They were too late to have the bill introduced during this session, but Paulo Nunes-Ueno, a sustainable mobility consultant working with Front and Centered, said they’ve had a lot of interest from legislators for future legislative sessions.
“Our approach is pretty simple,” he said. “It’s to just say, you know, these communities have already borne such a huge price. Why are we asking them to do that again? And why are we asking them to do that again without having some alternatives?”
For Jacquelyn Harris, a longtime resident of Tacoma who supports the proposal, it’s not about destroying all highways, but about striking a balance that has thus far not existed. She sees the impacts of the built environment in her work helping people access food, housing and education. While she understands the importance of highways to the economy, “you can’t sacrifice our health for the economy,” she said.
Five years ago, Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, would not have understood arguments in favor of highway removal, he said. But the last two years have changed things. He’s become more aware of how highways often bulldozed communities of color, uprooting homes and polluting what remained. “I think that the murder of George Floyd really accelerated those efforts to say, you know, across all policies, across all committees, across all issues, we should be applying some kind of equity lens, equity analysis,” he said.
A transit advocate, Liias supports alternatives to highway expansion, both to move more people and to limit highway emissions, which make up 40% of the state’s greenhouse gases. Liias has taken an interest in the South Park effort and is hopeful the Legislature can secure funding for a feasibility study of the proposal.
At the same time, as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, he’s said his ultimate task is to move people and goods through the state.
“I don’t think there is a single answer that will apply to all of these communities,” he said. “It’s not like, all right, this highway was bad so the answer is no highways.”
But highways are still the main thoroughfare for most people in the state. Rep. Barkis said emissions will decrease as cars become more efficient or electric, thereby answering some of the concerns about climate impacts. Meanwhile, “people will still want to be able to utilize their cars and the freedom to be able to go wherever they choose to go,” he said.
“You can’t deny that the state of Washington, for a multitude of reasons, continues to grow,” he said. “Our population is moving, is growing. We can’t go backwards; We need to have a robust transportation system and [highway] capacity is one of the things.”
Talk of highway removal gives pause to the industrial community. The movement of goods is major business in Washington.
“Highway 99 is an essential State corridor, providing for the safe and efficient movement of cargo, commuters, and other forms of transportation,” Peter McGraw, spokesperson for the Port of Seattle, said in an email. “It also serves as a connecting node to other important gateways throughout the region. We understand the concerns of those impacted by roads, and will continue to work with groups to reduce carbon emissions and improve local mobility, restore habitat along the Duwamish, and provide resources for neighborhood and community-based efforts.”
The spectrum of highway-skeptical advocacy is broad — on behalf of the wholesale removal of a portion of 99, the redesign of Aurora Avenue, the lidding of I-5 near downtown Seattle, against U.S. Route 395 expansion in Spokane. But each shares a central tenet:
“The status quo is not working well for anyone,” said Scott Bonjukian, co-chair of the steering committee for Lid I-5, a yearslong effort to cover the north-south highway near the Washington State Convention Center.
The next step for Soerens and Brown is a hoped-for feasibility study from the state to determine what it would take to tear out Highway 99. They’ve already received technical assistance from the city of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development.
When Soerens first mentioned the idea to Brown, she figured it would take 20 years. But Brown wanted to move more quickly. More than 90% of South Park residents live near a contaminated site, Superfund project or freight corridor, compared with roughly 60% for the rest of the city. South Park is ranked among the city’s least walkable or transit-accessible neighborhoods. It has absorbed immense change in the past, often because it was imposed on its residents: Japanese American farmers were incarcerated during World War II; zoning was changed to allow for more industry; and the highway split the town in two. Maybe now that change can come from within.
While Soerens is aware and focused on the practical steps necessary to move their project forward, her motivations are rooted in loftier ideals. As a Christian, she said she takes the ideal of “love your neighbor” literally. And while there are many ways to love one’s neighbor, in South Park, an island between highways, quieting the roaring 99 may just be the best expression of that love, she said.
“We’re in the business of freedom and restoration,” she said, descending off the pedestrian bridge and back to solid ground. “There was a mistake made here, an injustice to this community. We can maybe try to restore it.”