Western Washington transportation: A brief history

Skyscrapers in downtown Bellevue signal the city's emergence as a regional economic powerhouse. Photo by Chad Coleman.

Skyscrapers in downtown Bellevue signal the city's emergence as a regional economic powerhouse. Photo by Chad Coleman.

NOTE: You can view an interactive timeline of the history of transportation in the Puget Sound area.

By Mary L. Grady
Reporter Newspapers
To understand where we are now, we need to look back on where we have been. How has our transportation network come about, who are the players, and what role have voters had in shaping how we co-exist in a growing and ever-changing metropolitan environment?
The floating bridges, interstate highways and emergence of rail all came about through planning exercises that began more than 70 years ago.
In Washington, the Legislature first authorized counties and cities to engage in land-use planning and adopt zoning controls as early as 1937. But the choice remained optional.
Historylink.org and the essays by Walt Crowley offer a compelling timeline of the players and events of transporation planning in the Puget Sound region.
In October 1957, Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton brought together state and local officials to discuss a comprehensive transportation study for the Seattle region. The outcome, several years later, was the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study (PSRTS).
The PSRTS was developed not just for the Seattle metropolitan area but for the urbanized area of all four central Puget Sound counties: King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish. The four counties and their major cities, Seattle, Bremerton, Tacoma and Everett, participated through the Puget Sound Governmental Conference, which sponsored the study along with the state Highway Commission and federal Bureau of Public Roads.
The project was among the nation’s first large-scale attempts at comprehensive regional planning for transportation and land use.
On Sept. 30, 1967, the $1.6 million Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study (PSRTS) released its final summary report. However, the document disappointed many planners and mass transit advocates by concluding that rail rapid transit was not feasible in the region and, instead, proposed many new highways and bridges.

Recommending Roads
In place of a transit system, the PSRTS proposed to serve the growing suburban population with new highways. Along with the already planned R. H. Thomson Freeway in Seattle, east of I-5 (which voters would later cancel), the PSRTS recommended an Eastside freeway between I-405 and Lake Sammamish, various connecting freeways in Seattle between Aurora Avenue, I-5 and the proposed Thomson Freeway, and many more new freeways in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The study also called for a new Lake Washington bridge between Sand Point and Kirkland, and perhaps most controversially, strongly recommended a bridge across Puget Sound, from Fauntleroy (West Seattle) to Southworth in Kitsap County via Vashon Island.
Residents in the path of these proposed highways, not least on Vashon Island, reacted with alarm. Few of the proposals ever made it off the drawing board.
In 1968, transit advocates brought a plan to voters, but it would be three decades before Puget Sound voters approved funding.
On Feb. 13, 1968, King County voted on 12 Forward Thrust bond propositions (and one transit administration referendum), totaling $815.2 million. Voters approved seven propositions worth $333.9 million, including a $40 million multipurpose stadium (the Kingdome) and $118 million for new parks. Yet, local bonds for $385 million to help fund a $1.15 million rapid transit system failed with only 50.8 percent of the vote.
On May 19, 1970, King County voters rejected four Forward Thrust bond issues for a regional rail transit system, storm water control, community centers, and new County public health and safety facilities. The total local cost of $615.5 million (not counting $900 million in pending federal aid for mass transit) was too much for voters amid the deepening Boeing Bust.

Bill Dues, a WSDOT engineer, stands on an I-90 overpass during construction on Mercer Island in 1988. Photo by Bob DeLasmutt.

Bill Dues, a WSDOT engineer, stands on an I-90 overpass during construction on Mercer Island in 1988. Photo by Bob DeLasmutt.

Yet, a transit measure finally passed and work began in Seattle to address increasing congestion.
On Nov. 8, 1988, a King County advisory ballot issue asked citizens, “Should public funding and development of a rail transit system to serve the residents of King County be accelerated so that service in King County can begin before the year 2000?” Voters answered “yes” by more than a two-to-one margin.
By the early 1990s, the movement to expand mass transit finally got into gear.
Bus service began in the newly completed downtown Seattle transit tunnel on Sept. 15, 1990.
In 1993, the Washington State Department of Transportation was reorganized to branch away from its highway focus and assume a greater role in freight and passenger rail, aviation, ferries, bicycle trails and mass transit.
On Jan. 28, 1995, the Regional Transit Authority commenced a public demonstration of commuter rail service between Everett, Seattle, Kent and Tacoma, which was part of a proposed “Sound Move” plan on the March 14 ballot.
Yet there were setbacks. Voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties rejected the regional transit plan on March 14, 1995. The Regional Transit Authority proposal for rail and bus transit improvements won majorities in Seattle, Mercer Island and Shoreline, but was soundly defeated on the Eastside and in King and Snohomish counties. A scaled-down “Sound Transit” plan was adopted the following year.
Sound Transit inaugurated Sounder commuter rail service between Tacoma and Seattle on Sept. 18, 2000.
On Nov. 5, 2002, Seattle voters narrowly approved a new Seattle Popular Monorail Authority and Washington voters rejected the state Referendum 51 transportation plan and gas tax increase while approving Initiative 776, which cut motor vehicle taxes.
Yet transit inched ahead.
On Aug. 22, 2003, Sound Transit’s Tacoma Link, the state’s first modern light rail system, celebrated its inaugural run in downtown Tacoma.
Sound Transit installed the first rails for Central Link light rail in SoDo (south downtown Seattle) on Aug. 17, 2005.
On Saturday, July 18, 2009, thousands of people rode Seattle’s new light rail system on opening day.
For more information, go to historylink.org or the Museum of History and Industry at www.seattlehistory.org.

Mary L. Grady is the editor of the Mercer Island Reporter. She can be reached at editor@mi-reporter.com.