Senator Warren G. Magnuson announces on December 9, 1947, that the Public Roads Administration will fund some construction costs for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, allowing the project to move forward.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 10/28/2011
  • Essay 9954

On December 9, 1947, Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) announces that the United States Public Roads Administration will fund a portion of the costs of constructing the Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle's downtown waterfront, allowing the project to move forward. The money will come from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, which allocated money for postwar development of urban highways. Magnuson's announcement follows the release of an origin and destination study conducted by the Public Roads Administration and the Washington State Department of Highways to determine the best routes for a city-wide highway system. That study recommended construction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which the city had been considering since the 1910s, as part of a pair of north-south routes through the city. After Magnuson's announcement, the city will begin developing final plans for the viaduct and construction will begin in February 1950.

More Money for Urban Roads

Prior to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, Seattle received only limited federal assistance for its street system. Two of the most significant projects, the Ballard Bridge and the Spokane Street Viaduct, involved grade separations.  A 1940 Public Works Administration grant allowed the city to replace the largely wooden Ballard Bridge at 15th Avenue NW with a larger all-metal structure with improved approaches that carried traffic over railroad tracks at either end of the bridge. Federal funding also enabled construction of the Spokane Street Viaduct across railroad tracks west of 1st Avenue S. Grade separations reduced the number of automobile-train collisions and eased traffic congestion caused by trains blocking roadways.

In December 1944, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) had urged. The act shifted federal funding from primarily focusing on grade separations and rural roads to include the planning and construction of urban road projects that would be started after the war. Wartime activities had taxed urban road systems and many needed significant repairs and improvements.

In Washington, the state legislature passed a law in 1941 that allowed local governments to save, in a reserve fund, any money not spent on infrastructure projects because of wartime shortages of labor or materials. Seattle created its cumulative reserve fund in August 1944. Additionally, in March 1945 the state established the Washington State Development Fund, which allowed the Washington State Development Board (made up of the governor and four of his appointees) to direct funding to counties and cities for infrastructure development projects.

In 1943, the Seattle mayor's Post-War Public Works and Capital Improvements Advisory Committee asked each of the city's departments to produce a list of projects to be done in the first five years after the war. The Streets division of the City Engineer's Department submitted a list of 31 projects. These included a wide range of maintenance and development projects that had been neglected during the Great Depression and the war, including street repairs, paving projects, bridge and bulkhead construction, and roadway extensions. A viaduct along Alaskan Way -- the four-lane road built atop fill behind a seawall along Seattle's central waterfront -- was on the list, though it ranked 29th in priority. No explanatory letter accompanies the report in the city archives, but City Engineer Charles Wartelle (1885-1954), appears in the minutes of a 1944 City Planning Commission meeting as saying:  "It may not be needed in the five-year period following the war. After we get the other proposed by-passes constructed our traffic may be so relieved that it will be some time before this improvement is required. However, to play it safe it was included in the program. Its necessity will depend on the development of traffic in the post-war period" (Naramore).

By 1945, the viaduct and the expansion of Boren Avenue, to provide a bypass route on the east side of the downtown core, had moved to the top of Wartelle's priority list. This may have been due to the increased traffic in downtown as wartime limits on gasoline, tires, and automobile production ended. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, which offered a new source of funding for planning and constructing these large infrastructure development projects, may also have played a role.

Seattle's Commuter Habits

Prior to approving the viaduct project, however, the federal Public Roads Administration required a study of Seattle's transportation needs, which it conducted with the state Department of Highways in 1945 and 1946. The agencies interviewed tens of thousands of drivers and passengers at checkpoints along major thoroughfares and at ferry terminals. They also canvassed Seattle's neighborhoods and interviewed nearly 200,000 residents. The resulting report described Seattle's commuter habits, which included a majority of daily commuters (56 per cent) using public transit. The study also parsed out how traffic traveled in to, out of, and through the city, finding that half the drivers in the Central Business District did not stop on their way through town.

Road construction and improvement in the 1910s and 1920s created a network of roads that connected Washington's towns and cities with each other and with neighboring states. Travelers no longer had to rely on Mosquito Fleet steamers, interurban trains, or railroads to travel around Western Washington. However, when these drivers reached Seattle, they found a bottleneck created by Seattle's narrow band of land between Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Without any expressways through or around the city, drivers had to negotiate city streets to continue along their routes to the north and south, adding to the already substantial volumes of traffic going to in-city destinations.

The transportation needs study found that although the opening of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge in 1940 had increased traffic traveling to and from the east side of the lake, most north-south traffic passed through Seattle. In particular, the study found that a majority of traffic entered downtown from north end neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were served by Aurora Avenue and the Aurora Bridge, which opened in 1932, but drivers encountered city traffic congestion when the Aurora Avenue expressway ended at Denny Way.

The City of Seattle, well aware of the demand for a north-south bypass route around the city, had conducted numerous traffic studies in the 1920s and 1930s and had identified Alaskan Way and Boren Avenue as potential routes for channeling traffic around downtown. While the federal and state agencies completed their study, the city began developing plans for a viaduct above Alaskan Way.

Finding the Funds

In August 1946, the city council voted to create the Seattle Alaskan Way Viaduct--State Development Fund to receive funds from the Washington State Development Fund and from the city's cumulative reserve fund, out of which the council allocated $1,495,000 for the project. The state contributed $1,945,000 to the project from money allotted to Seattle, based on its share of the state's population, for public works projects.

Based on plans that the city had developed, the federal government required that Seattle agree to budget an additional $1,360,000 for the project. The city did not think it would be needed, but agreed to pass a resolution increasing the city's contribution to the project, which it did in early November 1947.

With the completed transportation study affirming that the Alaskan Way Viaduct would serve one of the city's needs for transportation infrastructure, and with city and state funding assured, the Public Roads Administration approved a contribution of $1,500,000 from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944. Senator Warren Magnuson had shepherded the project through the federal funding process, one of many such projects for which he helped win federal funding during his six terms in the United States Senate.

Plans for the Alaskan Way Viaduct moved forward, with construction beginning in February 1950. The viaduct above the central waterfront opened in 1953. The entire project, from Aurora Avenue to East Marginal Way south of the Spokane Street Viaduct, was completed in September 1959, with ramp connections to downtown and the Spokane Street Viaduct made in the 1960s.


"Alaskan Way Bid Goes to McRae Firm," The Seattle Times, December 28, 1949, p. 1; "Alaskan Way Viaduct Gets Federal Fund," Ibid., December 9, 1947, p. 1; Robert Heilman, "2-Deck Span to Require $6,300,000," Ibid., November 3, 1947, p. 1; "Incompleted Viaduct Makes Spokane Street Dangerous," Ibid., September 18, 1942, p. 26; "Ballard Bridge Project is O.K'd," Ibid., October 6, 1938, p. 2; Floyd Naramore, Municipal League of Seattle, chair of City Planning Committee, to City Planning Commission, June 9, 1948, Folder 4, Box 4,  2602-02 Engineering Department, Unrecorded Subject Files, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; Mimi Sheridan, "Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel," Historic American Engineering Record (HAER No. WA-184), Library of Congress American Memory website accessed September 12, 2011 (; C. L. Wartelle, "Proposed Alaskan Way Viaduct: Preliminary Plans and Cost Estimates," Folder 78, Box 1, 2615-02, Engineering Department, Miscellaneous Improvements Records, Seattle Municipal Archives; Washington State Department of Highways and United States Bureau of Public Roads, Origin-Destination Traffic Survey: Seattle Metropolitan Area (Olympia: Washington Department of Highways, 1947; 1941 Wash. Laws, ch. 60; 1945 Wash. Laws, ch. 255; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Magnuson, Warren G.  (1905-1989)" (by Kit Oldham), and "Final Phase of Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct Opens to Traffic on September 3, 1959" (by Phil Dougherty) (accessed October 19, 2011); "President Allows $1,500,000,000 for Federal Aid for Highways," New York Times, December 21, 1944; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 73476, "An ordinance establishing a Cumulative Reserve Fund, as authorized by Ch. 60, Laws of 1941, and providing funds therefor and expenditures therefrom for certain specified municipal purposes," approved August 29, 1944; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 75292, "An ordinance relating to the proposed Alaskan Way Viaduct; creating the 'Seattle Alaskan Way Viaduct--State Development Fund' to receive funds allocated for said project by the Washington State Development Board and making an appropriation from the Cumulative Reserve Fund in connection therewith," approved August 28, 1946; Seattle City Council Resolution No. 14866, "A resolution relating to the Alaskan Way Viaduct and defining the City's responsibility for the financing thereof," adopted November 3, 1947.

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