Seattle voters scrap proposed Bay Freeway and R. H. Thomson Expressway on February 8, 1972.

  • By Walt Crowley and Kit Oldham
  • Posted 3/19/2001
  • Essay 3114
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In a special election on February 8, 1972, Seattle voters endorse the City Council's cancelation of the R. H. Thomson Expressway, a planned third north-south highway through Seattle (in addition to State Route 99 and Interstate 5), which would have cut through the Central Area and Montlake neighborhoods and the Washington Park Arboretum. Voters also override the council's approval of another controversial highway, the proposed Bay Freeway linking SR 520, I-5, and SR 99 along the south shore of Lake Union. The vote puts an end to the two planned in-city highways after more than a decade of controversy.

Ring of Highways 

Plans for the R. H. Thomson Expressway dated from the 1950s as part of an envisioned "ring road" system of interlocking freeways surrounding Seattle's central core, including SR 99, I-5, and planned east-west highways along the routes of Spokane Street and NE 50th Street. The proposed north-south expressway east of I-5, eventually named for long-time City Engineer Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949), would have followed the general route of Empire Way (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way) from Renton through Southeast and Central Seattle. After a major interchange with I-90, plans called for it to head north as a limited access highway, cutting through the Washington Park Arboretum and linking to SR 520 and I-5. The highway would then dip under the Montlake Cut and re-emerge near University Village, with a link to an east-west expressway cut and tunneled along the route of NE 50th Street, before proceeding north to Lake City.

The more modest Bay Freeway would have created a new viaduct along the route of Mercer Street between 520, I-5, and SR 99 in the Cascade neighborhood south of Lake Union. Both proposed highways, along with other portions of the ring road system, were soon incorporated into Seattle's Comprehensive Plan, the legal blueprint for the city's infrastructure development and land use regulations. Voters gave their approval to both projects in the election of March 8, 1960, by authorizing more than $11 million in bonds to build the Thomson Expressway (then still referred to as the "Empire Way Expressway") along with other highway projects, and a separate nearly-$2 million bond issue to fund the Bay Freeway.

It did not take long for public opinion to turn against the R. H. Thomson Expressway. As highway engineers worked to design a specific route, it soon became clear that the highway would either have to level many blocks of residential neighborhoods or slash through the beloved Arboretum, and many Seattleites strongly objected to either alternative. In addition, by the mid-1960s, Seattle residents were seeing firsthand the effects of freeway construction, as homes and businesses fell along the route of I-5, and the first plans for I-90 called for a huge open trench through the Mount Baker Ridge, not to mention an interchange with the Thomson Expressway that would have displaced more than 4,000 residents and many businesses. The response was a rising anti-highway movement led by environmental and neighborhood protectionists, who organized Citizens Against R. H. Thomson (CARHT) as well as groups opposing I-90 and other proposed projects.

Pulling the Plug 

By 1967, when city officials abandoned plans for the Thomson Freeway-Interstate 90 interchange, it was apparent that no full-scale highway would be build along the Thomson corridor. The City Council declined to further fund the R. H. Thomson Expressway, and on June 1, 1970, the council voted to remove that proposed highway from the city's Comprehensive Plan. That vote essentially killed the project, although the bonds approved in 1960 remained on the books.

Even while pulling the plug on the Thomson Expressway, the council pushed ahead with plans for the Bay Freeway. At that same June 1970 meeting, councilmembers tentatively approved plans for a six-lane freeway, rejecting a four-lane alternative and ignoring calls to eliminate the Bay Freeway altogether. Later in the year, a divided council gave the go-ahead for construction of a partially elevated, four-lane Bay Freeway.

Opponents, including CARHT and seven other groups, filed suit to stop the project. They argued that the plan the council approved differed so much, in design and in cost, from what the voters had authorized in 1960 that the project should not proceed. In November 1971, a superior court judge agreed, and enjoined the city from building the Bay Freeway. In response, the City Council sent the freeway back to voters, scheduling a referendum seeking approval of the project as then planned for a vote on February 8, 1972. The council also set a final referendum on the R. H. Thomson Expressway for the same date, asking voters to formally terminate the approval they had granted in 1960 for that highway and its bonds (which had never been issued).

Not surprisingly, there was little suspense over the fate of the R. H. Thomson Expressway. On election day, nearly 71 percent of those voting approved Referendum 2, which terminated that project. Referendum 1, seeking approval of the Bay Freeway, was much more hotly contested, with organized groups on both sides of the issue. The opposition was fueled in large part by fears of a massive viaduct walling South Lake Union off from the rest of the city. In addition, the growing citizen campaign to cancel or scale back plans for the massive Interstate 90 trench through central Seattle served as a backdrop for the February 8, 1972, vote. In the end, Referendum 1 was defeated with 45 percent in favor and 55 percent opposed, and the Bay Freeway too was scrapped.


Shelby Gilje, "Bay Freeway Dead, Gone," The Seattle Times, February 9, 1972, p. B-2; Sam R. Sperry, "Bay Freeway to Stay Alive?" Ibid., November 23, 1971, p. A-14; "Bay Freeway Voided; Judge Cites Changes," Ibid., November 3, 1971, p. E-12; Jerry Bergsman, "Council Approves Bay Freeway," Ibid., December 22, 1970, p. A-16; "Thomson Parkway Dead ... Bay Freeway Goes on as 6 Lanes," Ibid., June 2, 1970, p. A-8; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 100541, “An Ordinance referring to the voters at a special municipal election to be held in Seattle on February 8, 1972, a referendum proposition to terminate the R. H. Thomson (Empire) Expressway Project ... ,” approved December 21, 1971; Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993), 36; Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle, A Narrative History: The Seattle Engineering Department 1875-1975, (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 117-123.
Note: This essay was significantly expanded and corrected on February 7, 2012.

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