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First part of Seattle Freeway (Interstate 5) route receives federal funding on October 1, 1957.

HistoryLink.org Essay 4166 : Printer-Friendly Format

On October 1, 1957, the first portion of the Seattle Freeway route, now (2005) the Seattle portion of Interstate 5, receives federal approval and funding. The route cuts through fully developed neighborhoods, following the pathway of a formerly proposed toll road known as the Eastside Expressway.

History of the Route Decision

Federal approval of the freeway carried with it the guarantee of 90 percent federal funding. The approved portion was between Shelby Street in the Eastlake neighborhood and E 43rd Street in the southern portion of the University District. This area became the first portion of the Freeway to be constructed: the Ship Canal Bridge and its approaches.

The route follows, almost without exception, the route of an abandoned toll road project called the Eastside Expressway. The name refers to the fact that the proposed route lay east of Seattle's then-only highway, Aurora Avenue/Route 99.

The Eastside Expressway project was first floated in 1951 and funded by the state legislature via a toll act in 1955. Everyone who used the road would use it to reach downtown, road planners forecasted. The road, therefore, must be routed directly through heavily populated areas and the central business district in order to entice drivers and to generate the necessary tolls to make it cost-efficient. Although federal funding permitted the road to be built without concern for toll collection, the toll-generating route remained the same. Using this already-designated route allowed the state of Washington a head-start in the nationwide race for freeway funding in the wake of the 1956 National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act.

Unlike many urban freeways, the Seattle Freeway was not funded as an urban renewal project, although planners considered the portions of the route skirting downtown to be run down. "With few exceptions, this area contains older and less desirable buildings and is the beginning of the separation of the apartment house, clinic and residential area from the central business district -- from Marion Street to Denny Way -- this section will traverse an area that needs improvement in appearance" (Route Description).

Taking Neighborhoods

Skirting the city center, the freeway route made its way through small houses, apartment buildings, light industrial areas, and small businesses accessed by steep stairways, following a natural valley until reaching the Harvard Avenue/Roanoke area. "From there the Freeway will traverse residential areas entirely" (Route Description).

The swath taken for the right-of-way was two to three blocks wide, heavily built with houses, and extended north to the King County/Snohomish County line. The route swings slightly west at 75th Street NE, dodging a high-voltage electrical receiving substation, to "avoid adverse topography and remain on the west border of Northgate Mall" (Route Description).

Northgate Mall was built in 1950 at Northgate Way and 5th Avenue NE. The presence of the Greenlake Reservoir at NE 75th and 12th Avenue NE and of the Maple Leaf Reservoir at NE 90th and Roosevelt Way NE also influenced the freeway's path. The complex interchange between Bothell Way (now Lake City Way) and the freeway necessitated an even larger than usual right-of-way take in this portion of the Roosevelt/Maple Leaf/Greenlake neighborhood. From Northgate Mall the route returns to its course and parallels the old Everett/Seattle/Tacoma Interurban Trolley right-of-way.

Clearing the Route

Seattle Public Utilities (Water Department, City Light, Transit System, Fire Department, Pacific Telephone Company, Seattle Steam, and Western Union) were responsible for moving and rerouting their respective services. City Engineer Roy W. Morse (1906-2002) oversaw these efforts. Many streets that carried arterial traffic had to be reclassified, and some new arterials, such as NE 85th, were now classified as such. All of these changes had to be proposed to and approved by the City Council, with copies of the paperwork going to city, state, and federal files.

It is likely that many Seattleites had never seen a fully operational limited access freeway at the time the route was approved. Objections to the freeway route were mainly from individuals concerned about their own property, although some questions about the wisdom of slicing through the tissue of the city were quietly aired. Only the First Hill Improvement Club mounted any organized protest to the route, which in the end remained unaltered.

"Route Description for the Seattle Freeway," Box 16, Records Group 30, National Archives Records Administration, Alaska-Pacific Region; Seattle Municipal Archives files on Seattle Freeway; Seattle Freeway News No. 2 (Washington State Highway Department), October 24, 1957.

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Map of the route of the Seattle Freeway (later Interstate 5) crossing Lake Union, January 10, 1952
Courtesy WSDOT

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