Seattle has too many urban highways, but it could have had so many more if state leaders had realized all their dreams of highway expansion–including four cross-sound toll bridges. In 1965, the Washington Toll Bridge Authority floated the plan to cross Puget Sound with floating bridges connecting Seattle to four westward destinations, including Vashon Island/Southworth, Bainbridge Island (twice!), and one direct connection to the Kitsap Peninsula.

On the Seattle side, the planned cross-sound bridges would have involved ramming highways through Discovery Park and Alki Beach to feed the bridges to Bainbridge. Another crosstown highway would have plowed through Fauntleroy and Delridge to feed the bridge to Vashon and Southworth.

Our own Scott Bonjukian parodied the idea in an April Fools post back in 2016 calling for Bellevue-to-Bainbridge Bridges. “The opportunities are endless with enough concrete,” he wrote. But it was probably closer to actually happening than any of us care to admit–even as ugly and environmentally destructive as it would have been.

After all, I-5 construction displaced 40,000 Seattleites out of their homes, replacing vital urban neighborhoods with dead concrete trenches and interchanges, walling off Downtown from First Hill and Capitol Hill, and filling the newly created vacuum with noise and air pollution. People realized highways scar neighborhoods, and opposition was stiffer for future urban highway projects.

Ramming freeways through cities must have been in the air in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This 1959 map shows the City’s ring road vision for interconnecting expressways. (City of Seattle)

In 1970’s, I-90 made it through but just barely; 900 people turned up at Seattle City Hall mostly to protest the freeway ripping through the Central District and the International District–among the protesters were members of the Seattle Black Panther Party. The backlash won a consolation prize: a 2,000-foot lid over the freeway west of Mount Baker Ridge, a new park, and elementary school. The R.H. Thompson Expressway and the Bay Freeway, though, succumbed to the freeway revolts and were never built.

The cross-sound bridges plan surfaced in the 1950s. Here’s a map 1965 analysis. (Washington State Archives)

What doomed the cross-sound tollways may have been simpler: They might not have actually known how to safely build it, especially without severing the shipping routes Seattle was built on. Or maybe the demand for travel and bedroom communities in Kitsap County in the 1960s wasn’t as deafening as they imagined it to be. Whatever the reason, the cross-sound megabridges idea was dropped, and the Washington Toll Bridge Authority ceased to be in 1977, with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) taking over responsibility for overbuilding urban highways.

History may have been different with cross-sound bridges, but today both Vashon Island and Bainbridge Island are known for their opposition to new development. Bainbridge has an apartment ban right now. And it turns out Vashon likes being remote and sparsely dotted with mansions. Maybe with bridges to Seattle these leafy islands would have taken the 40,000 people displaced by I-5 construction, replacing urban homes with suburban island ones. But one look at Mercer Island suggests an urban island oasis open to all wasn’t in the cards.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I could support a tunnel somewhere to the islands if 1) if served transit exclusively at peak commute and peak weekend hours 2) it was tolled higher than the ferries all other hours.

    I gotta say though, status quo is pretty good for well-off Seattleites. The ride is massively subsidized and yet the user fee tamps down the crowds. You can feel like you’re getting away from it all without having to go very far at all. It’s like a fare-gated, drive-through park right across the water.

  2. It’s even more than that. If you look at the map there is an additional 5 bridges once you get over to kitsap. 3 to get off bainbridge, 1 from poulsbo to keyport and another from port orchard to bremerton. The Bainbridge to Bremerton bridge idea took a long time to die as the time savings is substantial (it takes an hour to drive around) even if you plan on using the ferry to go all the way to Seattle. Though at this point Brainbridge is rich enough to tell the state to sod off, but back when this idea was floated bainbridge was primarily rural and county land.

  3. I moved to Seattle in 1968 to attend the UW, and I became involved in civic affairs in 1970. I remember seeing that comp plan map with all the urban freeways~ it helped fuel the freeway revolt that lead to the demise of the R.H. Thomson expressway (note: no P in Thomson)

    And those cross-sound floating bridges never got beyond the lines-on-a-map phase. There was never any serious civic discussion of the subject, which a review of news archives I’m sure would confirm; certainly no preliminary design or engineering.

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