Mossback’s Northwest: An end to Seattle’s ramps to nowhere

The ramps to an imagined expressway were built during freeway frenzy in the 1960s. Now, all but one are coming down.

When citizen activists killed a cross-town freeway idea in 1972, concrete feeder ramps to it had already been built.  After 50 years, the ramps to nowhere are finally coming down.  

In Seattle, a city of cranes, we’re building things, and we’re tearing things down, like the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This is a story about how we’re also tearing down something that we never built. We’re talking about the so-called Ramps to Nowhere.

Like many cities back in the 1950s and ’60s, Seattle saw its future in freeways. Interstate 5 was built, splitting downtown in two for fast-moving vehicles. Planners envisioned a ring of connected highways around the central city.

One of the main projects was the so-called R.H. Thomson Expressway, named for Seattle famous, city-reshaping engineer, who, among other projects, washed away Seattle hills with regrades. The R.H. Thomson Expressway was part of this newly envisioned series of interchanges and roads, this one to cut right through the Lake Washington Arboretum in the Montlake neighborhood. It would connect with another highway, called the Empire Expressway, which would slash through the Central District, Ravenna, Madison Valley and Rainier Valley, among others. Voters approved the concept at first.

But people began rethinking the wisdom of being so highway- and auto-centric. With the rising environmental consciousness of the late 1960s and ’70s, skepticism grew. Such projects destroyed neighborhoods and displaced people of all classes. Many people wanted resources to go into mass transit.

An anti-expressway coalition formed at the grassroots. University of Washington students and professors, neighborhood activists, even the Black Panthers joined to oppose the R.H Thomson. People referred to the tangle of interlinking highways as “concrete dragons.”

They blocked bulldozers, signed petitions, urged the city to change course. And it worked. In 1972, voters rejected the R.H. Thomson project, and it was canceled.

But evidence of it was left behind. R.H. Thomson Expressway on and offramps had been built when the Evergreen Point Bridge — the State Route 520 floating bridge — was built in the early 1960s. They just sat waiting for the expressway to be attached. But they stood unconnected, like ancient ruins or garden follies. Instead of carrying cars, kids would jump off them into Lake Washington during warm summer days. They were used by swimmers and sunbathers. They were very expensive diving boards.

Visitors often looked at them with a kind of wonder and asked, “What the hell?” Why did the freeway stop in midair in a beautiful arboretum park? For many locals who opposed the R.H. Thomson, they became symbols of grassroots citizen activism — monuments to stopping the wrong kind of progress.

The ramps, however, are coming down. The expansion of the 520 bridge through Montlake has changed the highway configuration. Parts of the arboretum with the ramps are being restored to a more natural and parklike state. Activists and the city council, however, pushed to have some remnant of the ramp saved. As a result, a section will be kept in place to remind us in years to come of Seattle’s citizen activism and green values.

It is nice to be reminded that we stopped the dragon in its tracks, and that the unfinished Ramps to Nowhere symbolized getting us to a better place.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.