Washington and I-5
- From http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/local/grow272.shtml Dawson
The 2000 Census: I-5 drives population increase
Cities along interstate boast state's highest growth rates
Tuesday, March 27, 2001
By MIKE LEWIS
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Fed a steady diet of asphalt and concrete, the cities that line Interstate 5
from Canada to Oregon have grown thick and broad over the past 10 years,
sprawling over additional land more than twice the size of Seattle's
You can see it in Bellingham, where 500 more people live in each square mile
than in 1990. And in Everett, which has swelled by two square miles in the
1990s. And in Clark County, the state's fastest growing, which exploded,
growing 45 percent as Vancouver became one of Portland's most affordable
The story of modern growth in Washington is to some extent the story of I-5.
Originally intended as a connection between distant cities, it increasingly
has become a clogged artery, the magnet for much of the state's growth.
Planned in the 1940s as a toll road through the state's most populated
cities, the freeway moved people so well that it became one the state's most
effective, albeit unintentional, growth planners -- a seed farm for suburbs.
Consider this: Before the 1960s, roughly half of the state's population
lived within a few miles of what is now the I-5 corridor. Now, 68 percent of
all Washingtonians do. And since the highway's completion 30 years ago, 78
percent of the state's new growth has occurred no more than 10 miles from
its shoulders, and 3.9 million people live within 15 miles of the
Bob Schuster, who as a newly graduated engineer worked on the I-5 project
from its start in the 1950s to its completion at the end of the 1960s, said
the builders had no idea how I-5 would change the region.
"We didn't really think about how it might drive growth," he said. "That
just wasn't in our calculations."
But the 2000 Census reveals what every I-5 commuter has complained about for
years: Cities along Washington's north-south freeway have become more
crowded at a faster rate than have towns elsewhere.
All of the 48 cities along I-5's 280 miles between British Columbia and
Oregon added population in the past decade, and only five failed to bulk up
by adding more people per square mile.
It isn't simply more high-rise buildings in Seattle's Belltown and Capitol
Hill anymore. While the number of people crowded in the Emerald City --
6,717 in each four-block area -- easily exceeds the crowding in the rest of
the state, smaller cities like Lynnwood and Des Moines are seeing
urban-style growth at about 4,000 people per square mile.
Tukwila, for example, has 400 more people per square mile than it did a
decade ago. Tacoma has 200 more people in the same space. Kent shows an
additional 1,000 people within a similar footprint. In Vancouver, which has
grown from 46,000 to 143,000 in 10 years -- a 210 percent growth rate
assisted by aggressive annexation -- 3,354 people live in a space that held
345 in 1990.
Clark County Commissioner Betty Sue Morris said the growth has been good
economically but tough on people who have lived in the county for many
"It's been very difficult for some," said Morris, herself a "newcomer" at 30
years. "This community has grown faster than anyone expected."
Some experts say the state's 1990 Growth Management Act is partly the reason
for the denser, faster growing cities along the interstate during a decade
that saw more than 1 million more people pour into the state. Had it not
been in place, they say, many more miles of the I-5 corridor would be packed
with a long, narrow city of suburbs.
In the Puget Sound region, for example, the I-5 corridor cuts through the
heart of areas designated as "urban" for zoning purposes. Under the act,
urban areas are supposed to absorb the bulk of the growth to protect rural
and forest lands. The bottom line: growth has been concentrated near the
interstate because some counties, such as King, have tight building
restrictions make the corridor the easiest place to develop.
King County Councilman Larry Phillips, a Democrat who has worked for years
to create and modify the county's growth management plan, said the denser
growth in the state's most urban areas means growth is happening as it
"We basically pushed growth to places like the I-5 corridor faster than it
would have occurred (without the plan)," he said, adding that it helped
What it has done in some cases merely is shift it. Matt Erickson watched it
happen when tight land use controls in Oregon forced new residents across
the Columbia River, into sleepy Clark County.
When the Ericksons established their farm near Vancouver in 1898, the town
was just a couple of thousand people and plans for I-5 were four generations
distant. For a century, the family, one of the oldest in Clark County, grew
berries and wheat, raised cattle and generations of farmers on several
hundred acres north of town.
Now, it's part of town. And on a parcel of the land where his father,
grandfather and great-grandfather grew strawberries, the Ericksons have
grown a subdivision.
"It's kind of sad when you have to sell your land to make money," Matt
Erickson said. "But it is a lot more profitable than farming."
Counties along the interstate also grew at a slightly faster rate than have
counties elsewhere, when compared with the state as whole. The nine counties
that stretch from Canada to Oregon along the interstate grew 22 percent,
compared with 20 percent for the non I-5 counties.
"It stands to reason that where you have major roads, the growth will go
there," consultant Tom Rubin said. Added Phillips, "In King County, growth
was going to go there, anyway. We just helped focus it a bit."
There are signs that I-5 will remain a development magnet but that other
parts of the state are taking on a greater share of growth than they have in
the past. In the state's agricultural belt, Sunnyside grew at 23 percent,
Yakima at 30. Along the Interstate 90 corridor, expansion in Issaquah and
North Bend rivals that of I-5 cities. And as the I-5 corridor becomes
increasingly built up and congested, and as cities expand to absorb and
develop still more of the open space along the freeway, that effect likely
will increase, transit and growth experts said.
"It's a good road and really did its job very well for the past 30 years,"
said Schuster who also worked on the I-90 project in his decades with the
state Department of Transportation.
P-I reporter Mike Lewis can be reached at 206-448-8027 or