Seattle Voters Ready for Attention on I-5
A scientific poll conducted by the nonprofit Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) brings big news: “Over eight in ten voters described themselves as concerned” about the capability of Interstate 5 to survive a major earthquake in Seattle. Further, “More than three-fourths of respondents indicated support for relocating ramps” in the Downtown area.
For the first time it shows just how hungry the public is for fixing I-5. Six times as many voters are concerned about seismic vulnerability as those who are not. WSDOT and the state legislators have also long known that I-5 in Seattle is approaching or past the end of its service life and needs major upgrades to remain operational after the next Cascadia earthquake. These are the same reasons WSDOT demolished the Alaskan Way Viaduct and is in the middle of rebuilding State Route 520.
If rehabilitation work happens soon, lidding I-5 at the same time may be a logical way to productively utilize resources and reconnect our central, vibrant neighborhoods while reducing air and noise pollution – a win-win for everyone. Lidding I-5 could also be done independently, which the 2020 feasibility study confirms is possible.
The Downtown ramp system doesn’t work well. Some of the ramps don’t meet modern standards for spacing or location (especially at Spring Street and Seneca Street), they hamper Downtown bus transit and pedestrian safety, and they reduce opportunities for lids at First Hill. The NPI poll specifically asked, “please specify whether you would support or oppose relocating some of the Interstate 5 ramps in downtown Seattle if this were determined to be feasible for improving traffic congestion and safety issues”. A resounding 77 percent said they do.
Will our city and state leaders step up to these major challenges and opportunities? We’ll be talking with them this fall to share the polling information and advance the Lid I-5 project. See the next news item below.
Ask City Council To Advance Lidding I-5
As demonstrated by public support and the necessity of rethinking how our streets work post-pandemic, Lid I-5 is continuing to call upon the City Council to fund a Downtown Street Network Study in the next transportation budget. This is a next step proposed by Seattle’s Imagine Greater Downtown program and is needed to advance “Stitching the I-5 Divide”, which was listed as one of 10 big ideas and improvements to build a better Downtown. The study will also help fulfill the obligations of Resolution 32010 passed this summer, which directs city staff to continue studying freeway lids.
The program report says we must “reduce the impact of freeway ramp traffic on Greater Downtown streets while maintaining access to support local and regional economic growth.” Lid I-5 is specifically interested in opportunities to remove the ramps at Spring Street and Seneca Street, which create unusual 5-way intersections. Over three-quarters of Seattle voters said they would support relocating ramps if it was feasible for improving traffic congestion and safety issues. Removing these ramps would enhance opportunities for lid structures, and WSDOT’s ongoing work to decouple the Seneca Street ramp from a dedicated exit lane should make such a project more possible.
The Downtown Street Network Study should also consider options to restore streets over I-5 at Terry Avenue, Minor Avenue, and Yale Avenue, connections which were lost when I-5 was built. Other considerations in the Imagine Greater Downtown program are prioritizing mobility needs to support mode share targets and optimizing the street network and curbspace.
Want to help? Simply email the City Council (email@example.com), or find your district councilmember, and share your support for funding the Downtown Street Network Study and for it to have a specific focus on the interaction of city streets with freeway traffic.
You can also testify at the upcoming budget hearings on November 10 and 18, and the first 30 minutes of each budget meeting (including two meetings this week, October 14 and 15 at 9:30 AM).
Pike Street Overpass Getting Full Improvements
Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reports that the Pike Street bridge over Interstate 5 will be getting the full set of pedestrian and bicycle improvements that were originally envisioned in the Pike Pine Renaissance project. The design for a widened sidewalk, concrete-protected bike lanes, and planter boxes was scaled back for a time when WSDOT objected over structural weight concerns.
This was concerning enough to Lid I-5 and other stakeholders that we joined on a letter led by Central Seattle Greenways pushing for engineering and budgeting accountability. Lid I-5 was part of the Community Package Coalition that secured $10 million for building protected bike lanes between 2nd Avenue in Downtown and Broadway in Capitol Hill, with the expectation of a first-class facility along the entire length of the corridor. Improving the safety and experience of walking and biking over Interstate 5, which is noisy and unsightly, is a critical interim step while we build support for the larger I-5 lid project that will completely seal off the sights and sounds of the freeway.
Working with the City of Seattle, WSDOT has now determined the original pedestrian and bike improvements on the Pike Street overpass are feasible. This is a great instance of the intergovernmental collaboration that will be needed to lid the freeway in the future. The Pike-Pine reconstruction (the shorter segment between 1st Avenue to Bellevue Avenue) is expected to begin in mid-to-late 2022 and take approximately 18 months to complete. See the project website for details.
Federal Funding Update
The fight for federal community restoration funding forges on. The latest version of the infrastructure package, as of September, includes $4 billion in a new program called Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants. This is proposed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as part of the Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5267, section 110003).
This new program is fairly streamlined compared to earlier bills and requires 40 percent of the funds to be awarded to economically-distressed communities. Non-profit entities must partner with a larger entity such as a city or state government. Importantly to Seattle, capping of freeways is one of the eligible endeavors (alongside removal, remediation, and replacement projects).
This $4 billion would be in addition to $1 billion proposed in the separate Reconnecting Communities Act (the latter originally proposed $20 billion but was reduced in the bipartisan infrastructure framework); it is possible both programs could pass. We’ve been busy co-advocating with our new Washington-based and nationwide coalitions, representing over 100 organizations across multiple cities, who sent letters of support on these proposals in July, August, and September.
By funding freeway capping and highways-to-boulevards projects, these grants would have the power to build new infrastructure that improves residents’ quality of life and support more environmentally and economically resilient communities. You can contact your federal Representatives and Senators to send your own encouragement. Thank you to every individual and organization who already signed our joint letter in July!