Transportation Chronology: Moving Washington for a Century -- 100 Years in the History of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)

  • By Walt Crowley and Kit Oldham
  • Posted 3/10/2005
  • Essay 7273
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The Washington State Transportation Commission and Department of Transportation -- WSDOT for short -- are descendents of the original State Highway Board created on March 13, 1905. Washington had been a state for only 16 years, and fewer than 1,000 miles of state roads (mostly unpaved outside of cities) served a population of about 600,000. Railroads and steamships handled most long distance travel and freight, and people got around locally by foot, horse, wagon, streetcar, or bicycle. There were fewer than 100 automobiles in the entire state.

One hundred years later, Washington's population exceeds six million -- and nearly three million private vehicles travel more than 55 billion miles on our state's streets, roads, and highways every year.

This chronology marks the major milestones in the evolution of Washington's transportation system over a century of progress, challenge, and innovation.


Governor Albert E. Mead signs law for State Highway Board and Commissioner on March 13, 1905. Highway Commissioner Joseph M. Snow and Highway Board hold their first meeting on April 17, 1905.

First automobile crosses Snoqualmie Pass in June 1905.

The first airplane in Washington is demonstrated in Georgetown, near Seattle, in March 1910.

Governor Marion E. Hay signs "Permanent Highway Act," imposing state control over major highways and levying a one-mill road tax, on March 8, 1911.

Henry L. Bowlby serves as Highway Commissioner, 1909-1911.

State engineers begin experimenting with concrete paving in 1912.

State takes over private toll bridge between Clarkston and Lewiston, making it Washington's first public interstate bridge, on December 4, 1913.

William R. Roberts serves as Highway Commissioner, 1911-1913; succeeded by William R. Roy, 1913-1916.

Governor Ernest Lister dedicates Sunset Highway (now I-90) at Snoqualmie Pass on July 1, 1915.

President Woodrow Wilson signs Federal Aid Road Act on July 11, 1916.

James Allen serves as Highway Commissioner, 1916-1921.

Clark and Multnomah counties open Columbia River Interstate Bridge on February 14, 1917.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dedicates Government Locks on Lake Washington Ship Canal on July 4, 1917.

First public airstrips are developed in Spokane (Felt's Field) and Seattle (Sand Point) in 1920.


The State Highway Board is replaced by the State Highway Committee (governor, state auditor, and state treasurer) in 1921 and a Division of Highways is created in a new Department of Public Works. James Allen serves as Supervisor of Highways until 1923, then as Highway Engineer until 1925.

Washington levies its first gasoline tax, one cent per gallon to raise $900,000 annually, in March 1921.

Division of Highways establishes first State Highways Testing Laboratory (now Materials Laboratory) in Olympia in July 1921.

State undertakes first snow removal services on Cascade mountain passes in the winter of 1922-1923.

Legislature removes highways from the Department of Public Works and puts them under a State Highway Engineer in 1923.

State builds its first standard dimension steel-truss bridge over the Dosewallips River in August 1923.

Final 36-mile stretch of Pacific Highway is paved between Kalama and Toledo to complete State Road No. 1 (now 99) in October 1923.

Present boundaries for six state highway regional offices, each headed by a District Engineer, are established in 1925 (a temporary seventh district directed interstate construction in the Puget Sound area between 1957 and 1975).

J. W. Hoover serves as Highway Engineer, 1925-1927.

First Vantage Bridge over the Columbia River opens on September 8, 1927 (replaced in 1962).

Samuel J. Humes serves as Highway Engineer, 1927-1929, then as Director of Highways until 1933.

Department of Highways becomes a separate code department on March 14, 1929.

Private Longview Bridge (now Lewis and Clark Bridge) opens as the longest cantilever bridge in North America on March 29, 1930 (the state purchased it 1947).

State begins operating the Keller Ferry across the Columbia River in 1930.

Olympic Loop Highway (U.S. 101) opens on August 26-27, 1931.

George Washington Memorial Bridge (Aurora Bridge) opens on February 22, 1932.

Legislature approves $10 million in emergency relief bonds for public roadwork, funded in part from the gas tax, in February 1933. This is the first bonded debt issued by the state for roads.

Lacey V. Murrow serves as Director of Highways, 1933-1940.

Highway Department establishes first truck weighing stations in 1933.

Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges open between Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island in July 1935.

Black Ball ferry Kalakala enters service on July 3, 1935 (the State retires it in 1967).

Legislature approves sweeping new highway code, raises speed limit to 50 m.p.h., and creates new Toll Bridge Authority within the Department of Highways in March 1937.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge opens on July 1, 1940, and Lake Washington Floating Bridge (or Mercer Island Bridge, now Lacey V. Murrow Floating Bridge) opens the next day.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses during a windstorm on November 7, 1940.


Burwell Bantz serves as Director of Highways, 1941-1945.

During World War II, gas rationing is imposed and maximum speed limits are reduced to 35 m.p.h. Grand Coulee Dam and Hanford nuclear reservation are completed.

Voters approve Amendment 18 to the state constitution, limiting all transportation-related tax revenues to highway uses, on November 7, 1944.

Clarence Hickey dies shortly after being named Director of Highways in 1945, and is succeeded by Clarence Shain, 1945-1949.

Legislature passes first authorization for limited-access highways and establishes an Aeronautics Commission in March 1947.

William A. Bugge serves as Director of Highways, 1949-1963.

Agate Pass Bridge between Bainbridge Island and Kitsap Peninsula opens October 7, 1950.

Replacement Tacoma Narrows Bridge opens on October 14, 1950.

Washington State Toll Bridge Authority takes over Black Ball Line, at a cost of $6.8 million, to establish Washington State Ferries on June 1, 1951.

Legislature reorganizes the Department of Highways under a new five-member Highway Commission effective July 1, 1951.

White Pass highway (SR 12) is officially opened on August 12, 1951.

First portion of Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct between Battery and Dearborn streets opens on April 4, 1953.

The Steamboat Slough and Snohomish River bridges in Everett, Skagit River Bridge in Mt. Vernon, Chehalis River Bridge in Aberdeen, and Wenatchee River Bridge all open in between 1954 and 1956.

Department of Highways begins using its first "computer," an IBM Cardatype, in March 1956.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs new Federal Aid Highway Act, which boosts federal match to 90 percent to create an "Interstate and Defense Highway System" on June 29, 1956.

Olympia Freeway bypass (a portion of future I-5) opens on December 12, 1958.

Vancouver-Portland Interstate Toll Bridge over the Columbia River opens in January 1960.

First portion of Interstate 5 opens in Tacoma on December 21, 1960.


Washington State Legislature adopts Highway Advertising Control Act to remove billboards in March 1961 (four years ahead of National Highway Beautification Act).

Hood Canal Floating Bridge opens to traffic on August 12, 1961.

Seattle's "Century 21 Exposition" World's Fair opens on April 21, 1962.

Charles G. Prahl serves as Director of Highways, 1963-1969.

Evergreen Point (now Albert D. Rosellini) Floating Bridge opens on August 28, 1963.

Interstate 5 opens to traffic between Seattle and Everett on February 3, 1965, and Seattle reversible lanes open in June.

Interstate 405 opens between Renton and Tukwila on September 3, 1965.

With Washington state participation, Oregon Highway Department completes the Astoria-Megler Bridge over the Columbia River on August 27, 1966.

First "superferry," Hyak, is launched in San Diego on December 17, 1966.

George H. Andrews serves as Director of Highways, 1969-1975.

Spokane's 4th Avenue viaduct is completed in September 1969.

Final portion of I-5 is completed on November 14, 1969.

Department of Highways occupies its current headquarters in Olympia in 1970.

Environmental lawsuits are filed to halt construction of Interstate 90 on May 28, 1970.

Fred Redmon Memorial Bridge opens on I-82 over Selah Creek on November 2, 1971.

Jumbo Ferries Spokane and Walla Walla are launched during 1972.

North Cascades Highway (SR 20) opens between Newhalem and Winthrop on September 2, 1972.

King County voters approve creation of Metro Transit on September 19, 1972.

State's first acoustical freeway barriers and first "High Occupancy Vehicle" (HOV) lanes are introduced in 1973.

Spokane "Expo 7" World's Fair opens on May 4, 1974.

OPEC oil embargo spurs Congress to pass National Mass Transportation Act, providing the first federal aid for transit operating costs, and to impose a 55 m.p.h. freeway speed limit in 1974 (lifted in 1996).

William A. Bulley serves as last Director of Highways, 1975-1977.

Legislature grants local governments authority to create Public Transportation Benefit Areas to provide transit services in 1975. 

Highway Commission signs memorandum of understanding for revised I-90 design with Seattle, Mercer Island, Bellevue, and King County on December 21, 1976. 

Eleven-mile section of I-205 bypassing Vancouver opens to traffic on December 22, 1976. 

New Washington State Department of Transportation, guided by a Transportation Commission, formally begins operation on September 21, 1977. The Commission names William A. Bulley as the first Secretary of Transportation.


Innovative cable-stayed Intercity Bridge opens across the Columbia between Pasco and Kennewick in September 1978.

In the first railroad line rehabilitation project in the West, WSDOT starts work on 61-mile spur line between Metaline Falls and Newport in 1979.

West half of Hood Canal Floating Bridge sinks during a severe storm on February 13, 1979.

Federal courts lift injunction on final I-90 construction between Seattle and I-405 on August 24, 1979.

Mount St. Helens erupts on May 18, 1980, wiping out much of SR 504 and temporarily closing more than 1,000 miles of state highways.

First of a new class of ferries, the Issaquah, is launched on December 29, 1980.

Duane Berentson serves as Secretary of Transportation, 1981-1993.

First "FLOW" on-ramp meters are installed on I-5 on September 30, 1981.

Replacement Hood Canal Bridge opens to traffic on October 3, 1982.

Twin I-182 bridges open between Richland and Pasco on November 27, 1984.

Third floating bridge across Lake Washington (later named for Homer M. Hadley) opens on June 4, 1989.

Washington State Legislature enacts High Capacity Transportation Act, authorizing Regional Transit System Plans, and Growth Management Act (GMA), first state mandate for comprehensive planning, in 1990.

While under reconstruction, the original 1940 Lacey V. Murrow Floating Bridge sinks during a violent storm on November 25, 1990.


President George H. W. Bush signs Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, broadening federal transportation policies and funding, on December 18, 1991.

Sid Morrison serves as Secretary of Transportation, 1993-2001.

Department of Transportation launches its first website in 1994.

State inaugurates its first "Grain Train" serving Port of Walla Walla in fall 1994.

Transportation Commission adopts a first-ever 20-year transportation plan, integrating all forms of surface transportation in each of the state's 39 counties, in spring 1996.

Washington State Ferries launches its first Jumbo Mark II ferry, the Tacoma, on August 29, 1996.

King, Pierce, and Snohomish County voters approve $3.9 billion "Sound Transit" plan on November 5, 1996.

Rideshare program, coordinated by state and local transit authorities, begins in Thurston, Pierce, King, Kitsap, and Snohomish counties in December 1996.

The cable-stayed bridge over Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway on SR 509 opens on January 22, 1997.

Johnston Ridge Observatory on Mount St. Helens and final section of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (SR 504) open on May 17, 1997.

Washington State Ferries launches its first passenger-only ferry, Chinook, on May 15, 1998.

State voters pass Referendum 49, which reduces Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET), reallocates transportation funds, and authorizes $1.9 billion in bonds to fund $2.3 billion in transportation projects on November 3, 1998.

State approves a $350 million "New Partners" proposal for new toll bridge across the Tacoma Narrows on November 18, 1998.

With state funding and aid, Amtrak inaugurates "Cascades" rail service between Eugene and Seattle with three new "Talgo" trains on January 11, 1999.

Voters approve Initiative 695, capping annual MVET at $30, on November 2, 1999. The Supreme Court later voids the initiative, but the Legislature retains the MVET cap.

State Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation proposes major reforms and new funding strategies on November 29, 2000.

A severe earthquake near Olympia causes more than $1 billion in damage to roads and infrastructure on February 28, 2001.

Douglas B. MacDonald becomes Secretary of Transportation in 2001.

Terrorist attacks temporarily shut down many transportation systems on September 11, 2001, and lead to intensified security precautions for airports, ferries, railroads, and highways.

Voters reject Referendum 51 transportation plan and gas tax increase while approving Initiative 776, which seeks to cap local MVET surcharges, on November 5, 2002.

Five-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase takes effect on July 1, 2003, to fund $4.2 billion in priority "nickel projects."


Today, WSDOT spends more than $1 billion annually for planning, construction, operation, maintenance, and management of key elements of a complex "multimodal" system of transportation including more than 7,000 miles of state highways (only 9 percent of total road miles, but carrying nearly 60 percent of all traffic), a Washington State Ferries fleet serving more than 25 million annual riders, 16 emergency airfields, and special passenger and freight rail services. (Back cover)

2005 and Beyond ...

Today the Washington State Transportation Commission and Washington State Department of Transportation face tasks and challenges both new and old. In updating its 20-year plan, the Transportation Commission has identified key issues for innovation, investment, and improvement, including --

  • Meeting the transportation needs of the 2 million additional citizens expected to live in Washington by 2030.

  • Expediting the movement of freight so our state can compete in the global economy and create new jobs and opportunities.

  • Funding repair and upgrades of aging State highways, bridges, ferry docks, and other facilities, most of which were built before 1980.

  • Making the protections of the environment and of public health integral elements of transportation design.

  • Exploring new technologies such as commuter travel information systems to make existing and new highways as efficient as possible.

In partnership with federal and local governments, the private sector, and, foremost, the people of our state, the Washington State Transportation Commission and the Department of Transportation are working to keep Washington moving in the twenty-first century.

Sources: This chronology was prepared by for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

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