On February 1, 1966, the Columbia Street on-ramp to the Alaskan Way Viaduct opens to traffic. The final component of the viaduct to be built, it provides the only access from central downtown to the viaduct. Seven ramps built previously allow viaduct traffic to enter downtown at 1st Avenue S, at Seneca Street, and at Western Avenue, to leave downtown at 1st Avenue S and at Elliott Avenue, and to connect with the Spokane Street Viaduct. The original plans for the viaduct included two additional central downtown ramps and a connection to a separate viaduct that would have carried traffic across the industrial district at Connecticut Street (today's Royal Brougham Way) to the Lake Washington Floating Bridge. These planned projects were not built partly because of concerns that they would add congestion to the bypass route, and partly because construction of Interstate 5 in the mid-1960s made them less necessary.
No Bypassing Downtown
Early in the design process for the Alaska Way Viaduct, it became clear that a purely bypass route around downtown Seattle, favored by some in the engineering department, would not be feasible because some funding for the project came from the federal government. The Federal Bureau of Public Roads would not fund a road that did not provide access to the central business district. The city council also opposed bypassing the city center and, most likely, downtown business owners would not have endorsed the project either without the downtown ramps.
When the first section of the viaduct opened in 1953, traffic could only enter and exit the roadway via ramps at Western and Elliott avenues at the northern end, and at 1st Avenue S at the southern end, the temporary terminus of the roadway until the Battery Street Subway (tunnel) and the southern extension of the viaduct to the Spokane Street Viaduct could be built. The "bulges," or access points, for each of the remaining ramps and their acceleration/deceleration lanes were built and left as stubs.
The full length of the limited-access highway between E Marginal Way and Mercer Street opened on September 3, 1959. At this stage, the viaduct could be accessed by the original ramps, Aurora Avenue in the north, and E Marginal Way in the south, but not at Spokane Street or from the central business district. For several months a steel shortage and labor disputes delayed completion of the ramps to and from the Spokane Street Viaduct that would serve traffic from rapidly growing West Seattle neighborhoods.
A Confusing Situation
Until those ramps were finished, traffic had to exit the Spokane Street Viaduct at 1st Avenue S and loop around on city streets to get to E Marginal Way. The Seattle Times poked fun at the confusing situation, writing:
"Our friend [an anonymous West Seattle resident], looking longingly toward the setting sun and home, sped above West Spokane Street on the viaduct and whirled along down First Avenue South in a fast moving clot of traffic.
"After a few blocks he saw ahead a line-up of automobiles making right turns.
"'Hah,' he thought, 'I'm not the only boob in West Seattle. Those people must have made the same mistake and that's the way back to Spokane Street.'
"Sheeplike, he fell into line and soon found himself being directed this way and that by armed guards, not along a highway to West Seattle, but in a huge parking lot -- at shift-change time" ("Strolling Around").
The off-ramp to westbound Spokane Street opened on October 23, 1959, but the on-ramp from eastbound Spokane Street was delayed longer by steel shortages; it opened in January 1960. Further ramp connections were put on hold until underpasses could be built beneath Aurora Avenue at Mercer and Broad streets, north of the Battery Street Subway. The city engineering department was concerned that if more traffic could access the viaduct, traffic signals on the highway at Mercer and Broad would cause backups.
Those underpasses were completed in the summer of 1958 but construction of the downtown access ramps did not start until 1961. City and state postwar development funds paid for the original sections of the viaduct and the state funded the southern extension of the viaduct in exchange for the city paying for and building the underpasses. The ramps to downtown lacked that earmarked financial support and competed with other regional transportation projects, such as the Seattle Freeway (Interstate 5). The city eventually funded (from its street fund) both of the ramps that were built.
The ramps were seen as a means to stimulate the central business district. Downtown Seattle retail businesses suffered in the postwar era because automobiles made it possible for residents of outlying areas to travel to decentralized retail districts. Instead of needing the city's light rail or the regional interurban system (both of which terminated in downtown Seattle) to reach stores, suburban and small-town residents could go to a nearby shopping district, or the new shopping malls like Northgate, to shop. The ramps to and from the viaduct, in addition to their role in clearing congestion from city streets, would offer easy access to the downtown shopping district and encourage shoppers to come downtown.
The city decided to begin with the ramps that served the southern neighborhoods, including West Seattle. The industrial district, with its train and truck traffic, lay between these neighborhoods and downtown. The northern neighborhoods could get fairly close to downtown via Aurora Avenue, which ended at 7th Avenue and Denny Way.
Work began on the Seneca Street off-ramp from the northbound deck of the viaduct in early 1961 and it opened to traffic in October 1961. Though it ended at a confusing intersection (the ramp, carrying traffic eastward, met 1st Avenue at Seneca Street, a westbound one-way street) traffic moved smoothly to the north and south on 1st Avenue.
Calls for an On-ramp
Calls for the next ramp, a southbound on-ramp at Columbia Street, began before the Seneca Street ramp opened. H. P. (Dick) Everest (d. 1974), president of the Central Association, wrote to Ernest Ketcham, chair of the state Highway Commission, in September 1961: "We urge that the Columbia Street ramp be constructed as soon as possible in order that this pair of ramps be available to the motoring public" (Everest to Ketcham). The Seattle Times editorialized in 1964 that the lack of progress on the project was a case of "dilly-dallying with a traffic movement project," and that "It is one of the few major traffic-movement arterials in the nation, we suppose, which has only a single-purpose ramp in its most critical section" ("Build Columbia Street Ramp"). The state did not end up contributing to the project; instead the city paid for the ramp out of the General Arterial Improvements Fund.
After some adjustments to the design, to align the ramp as far as possible from the offices of the Journal of Commerce at Western and Columbia and to make the railings solid (to reduce noise from the roadway), the Seattle-based Will Construction Company began work on the ramp in mid-1965 and completed the project in February 1966.
The viaduct at Connecticut Street (Royal Brougham Way), which, as shown in a 1960 Seattle Engineering Department drawing, would have connected to the Alaskan Way Viaduct via ramps from both decks and to city streets via a ramp to 1st Avenue S, was planned to carry traffic over streets and railroad tracks to the Lake Washington Floating Bridge via the planned Seattle Freeway. It remained on the drawing board. When the Seattle Freeway (I-5) opened in the mid-1960s, that route provided sufficient access to the floating bridge, and construction of the Connecticut Street viaduct never moved forward.
But as Seattle grew and as traffic increased along with demand for easier movement between port facilities and the I-5 and I-90 freeways, a viaduct structure following approximately the same route was built, in pieces, over several decades. By 2011 traffic could travel above city streets and railroad tracks from Occidental Avenue S and Edgar Martinez Way to the Interstate 90 tunnels under the Mount Baker neighborhood largely on elevated streets, though the connection to the Alaskan Way Viaduct was never made.