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How Tukwila stole 2.5 miles of Highway 99 from state control

It started with street trees. Tukwila wanted to plant some along state Route 99 to slow down traffic and beautify the area.

But the state said no. Trees, it turned out, were not safe, at least not as safe as lamp posts.

Light poles are made to break when a car hits them; they fall over, trees don't. So when fast moving cars hit trees, people are more likely to get hurt.

That argument frustrated people in Tukwila back in the early 2000s. Pam Carter was on the City Council at the time. She said Tukwila had been trying to turn the highway into a main street for Tukwila, a place to walk and sit on a bench beneath a tree.

Trees are considerably less dangerous if you don’t hit them very hard (for example, if you’re driving slowly). But Carter said the state also rejected Tukwila’s request to lower the speed limit.

“Traffic was 50 miles an hour,” Carter said, “which wasn’t very pleasant for pedestrians.”

The trees were the tip of a much larger iceberg, an iceberg that represents the tension some small towns throughout the region feel around the state highways that pass through them.

Larger cities like Seattle, with populations over 25,000, are given control over certain parts of a highway’s design, such as how to divide the lanes. But small towns like Tukwila have little control over those details.

It’s not that the state wouldn’t listen at all to Tukwila’s concerns or entertain the city’s dreams, Carter said. It’s just that the state has processes you have to go through, and Tukwila was impatient for change.

Then, somebody at the city came up with a dramatic idea: Tukwila could steal part of 99 from the state.

“I remember them coming to the council with this idea,” Carter said, “and all of us going: ‘Really, we could do that? How?’”

OK, it’s not really fair to call it stealing. Tukwila did try asking nicely first. But officials at the Washington State Transportation Department said state Route 99 was too important to break into pieces.

So in 2003 Tukwila went over WSDOT's head and appealed to their state representative in Olympia, Zack Hudgins. ​Hudgins was newly elected at the time and said he was eager to please his new constituents.

Tukwila officials told him: We'd like to take over this piece of road. “And I said, ‘That seems strange, but I’ll give it a try.’" Hudgins said.

KUOW's Region of Boom Team is tracing the impact of growth and development along the region's first major highway, State Route 99. Hear more from our series, Along The Mother Road.

His try succeeded. The legislation passed unanimously, and a 2.5 mile segment of SR 99 became the property of Tukwila — along with the associated maintenance costs.

Hudgins said Tukwila’s willingness to take on those costs was key and may explain why WSDOT eventually seemed to give up the fight.

“We were very surprised that it was actually successful!” said former Councilmember Carter.

After the legislation passed and the city took ownership of the roadway, Tukwila swooped in with shovels and street trees — some donated by a Buddhist group.

Next, the city brought down the speed limit a little and put in some crossing signals. Now, it’s called Tukwila International Boulevard and it has wide sidewalks and buried power lines.

“We control this,” Carter said, pointing at the boulevard. “We decide."

Carter said the current council expects a study soon examining whether the highway should go on a “road diet.” That would cut down the number of highway lanes to make space for bike lanes and parallel parking, which engineers say slows down traffic even more.

Rep. Hudgins is happy with what Tukwila has done with the road.

“There’s starting to be a real change,” he said. But he’s had second thoughts about how it all went down. “Maybe we should have found a win-win solution instead of simply giving the road to Tukwila."

Being in government awhile has taught him what the state may have been trying to protect when it first fought Tukwila’s takeover.

“It makes it difficult to put together a statewide highway system if you’re going to be pulling pieces out of it.”

Hudgins said his work in the legislature has taught him to apply long-term, system-wide thinking to issues.

If he had to do it all over, he might have proposed Tukwila be given a 99 year lease, rather than complete ownership.

“I mean, communities change, mayors change, councils change. And the road will still have to be there,” he said.

But Hudgins said the threat that other small cities might do what Tukwila did helps keep the state accountable.

The state’s highways belong to the people of Washington. And if the people get impatient, they might just steal their roads back.

Have a story idea for the Region of Boom Team? Email KUOW Reporter Joshua McNichols. After Tukwila, he plans to look at communities emerging around planned lightrail stations.

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