A Ramp to Somewhere

By Jean Godden

The Ramps to Nowhere, deserted highway interchanges, have overshadowed Union Bay and the Arboretum since Methuselah was a small child -- or at least since the 1960s. Now those soaring, never-connected ramps are the heart of a controversy between the state Department of Transportation and citizens working to preserve a piece of the structures as a memorial.

The forgotten ramps were long used by students for sun-bathing, diving and other sundry activities. They date from a very different time and mindset. Today it's hard to imagine the superheated freeway ambitions of the 1960s. State and city transportation planners envisioned three north-south freeways cutting through the narrow city: a widened SR-99, Interstate-5 (then under construction) and a new highway, the Empire Way Expressway -- later renamed the R. H. Thomson.

Those same planners foresaw four and possibly five Lake Washington bridges. Seattle would have been chopped into grids and paved over for the benefit of commuters living in the suburbs. A ring road would have encircled Seattle's downtown. Detractors called it "The Noose."

At the time, a powerful nest of state legislators controlled the state's Highway Department. They hired the Highway Secretary, drew up the transportation budget and led the rush to pave over Seattle. Some of the lawmakers aspired to hand out lucrative construction contracts; others like Eastside realtor Alfred Leland (known to opponents as "Asphalt Al") aimed to curry favor with suburban constituents.

To combat the highway forces, freeway fighters -- organized as CARHT (Citizens Against R. H. Thomson) and CAF (Citizens Against Freeways) -- mobilized thousands of Seattleites, many of whose homes would have been demolished. Leading the way were three trailblazers: Margaret Cary Tunks from Lake City, Maynard Arsove from Montlake, and Bill Frantilla from Ravenna. They organized meetings in threatened neighborhoods, they lobbied mayors, councilmembers and legislators, even governors, and they raised money for legal skirmishes.

At one Seattle City Council hearing, CAF and CARHT members united with allies from the Central District and the Black Panthers to oppose I-90's 14-lane surface freeway through Mount Baker. The Panthers vowed, "Destroy our neighborhood and we will burn your city." The opponents joined hands and chanted: "Burn, Baby, Burn!"

In June 1970, the City Council responded by essentially killing the R. H. Thomson, removing it from Seattle's comprehensive plan. However, councilmembers blindly pushed ahead with the Bay Freeway, approving plans for an elevated six-lane highway above Mercer Street.

CARHT and CAF filed suit in King County Superior Court. On Nov. 13, 1971, Judge Solie Ringold agreed with their lawyers, enjoining Seattle from building the Bay Freeway. He advised Seattle to go back to the voters. The February 1972 vote to kill the Thomson was 71 percent; to stop the Bay Freeway, 55 percent.

The freeway fighters had stopped both highways. They also had tamed and narrowed I-90, lidding its entry into the city. It was a rare victory for neighborhoods over highways, one of the standout moments in Seattle history.

With some irony, a group named ARCH (Activists Remembered Celebrated and Honored) is now working to save a piece of those Ramps to Nowhere -- just four columns and a crossbeam. The symbolic ruin, located on land soon to be turned over to the Washington Park Arboretum, would serve as a tribute to the citizens who confronted a powerful juggernaut and, against all odds, won their battle.

ARCH's plan, backed by surviving fighters and their heirs, is a rare opportunity, one that deserves strong support. (Disclosure: I was one of the initial activists.) The Seattle City Council voted unanimously last October to retain the four columns; the University of Washington Arboretum and Botanical Garden Committee agreed. Last stumbling block is approval from a somewhat reluctant Washington Department of Transportation. WSDOT will be making a final decision on the ramps by mid year.

A relic of the fallen Ramps to Nowhere can and should become a vine-covered gateway to the Arboretum. It would be a fitting monument to citizens who waged a war and gave us back an intact city.

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