Gov. Inslee tries to save face on climate change by spending bike/walk money on highways

Then-candidate Jay Inslee visits Bike Works in 2012

Then-candidate Jay Inslee visits Bike Works in 2012

Governor Jay Inslee dug one hell of a climate change hole by pushing a highway-filled transportation package through the legislature a couple weeks ago. And now he’s trying to save face by digging deeper.

The Governor is currently mulling an idea that would trade hundreds of millions of dollars in bike/walk safety and trails funding for so-called “clean” fuels standards. WA Bikes has sent out an alert telling supporters to oppose this idea. You can use their handy online form to send Inslee a message yourself. Here’s a taste of the same letter:

Right now you have backed into a false choice between achieving your carbon emission reduction goals and biking and walking safety (a stated priority in your own Healthiest Next Generation Initiative). I support you working to explore other options to reduce the state’s carbon emissions, but not at the expense of sacrificing immediate investments in the health and safety for our children, better bikeways, and complete connections for biking and walking that, not coincidentally, also reduce our state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Let’s rewind: 94 percent of the $15 billion package is already directed to highways, and most of that funding will go to new highways or highway expansion projects (not necessary maintenance or paying off previous highway-building loans). These are long-term investments in more driving, more sprawling car-dependent developments, more public health crises and more greenhouse gas emissions.

On top of that, Republican leaders also included a “poison pill” that would transfer most multimodal funding — for biking, walking and transit projects — to highways if the Governor takes executive action on so-called “clean” fuels standards. Most people assumed that by allowing the poison pill through, Inslee was rolling over on implementing those standards, which “would gradually lower the average carbon intensity of fuels by 10 percent by 2027,” according to the Washington State Wire.

I guess we were fools. The Seattle Times reports that Inslee pulled a fast one on safe streets proponents because he is considering swallowing the pill:

Despite the poison-pill regulation, Inslee’s office has signaled he is still considering moving ahead on a low-carbon fuel standard. While that would trigger a shift in transit money, Inslee and his allies could gamble on a fight to restore the funding in a subsequent legislative session.

Inslee once again fails to make the connection between highways and greenhouse gases, despite the fact that the state’s Department of Ecology says half of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. By abandoning the only funds in the transportation package that would actually help residents of our state get around without a car, he’s not doing the environment any favors.

But far worse, the money he’s considering pulling is designed to prevent people from being killed or seriously injured while walking or biking. This isn’t just horse trading one environmental policy for another. These are lives we’re talking about.

Safe Routes to School would be slashed nearly to death by this decision. $56 million can build a ton of safe crosswalks, sidewalks and bike routes for kids all across the state to get to school safely. That’s the great thing about walking and biking safety projects: Your money goes a lot further. $56 million doesn’t get you very far in a highway expansion project (it’s about 1.3 percent of the 520 Bridge Replacement budget), but it could dramatically improve safety in communities across the state.

Also on the chopping block: The Northgate bike/walk bridge, which would provide a sorely needed safe way for people to cross I-5 to get to the under-construction Northgate Station and Northgate Mall. It would also cut $14 million for fixing the most dangerous missing sections of the I-90 Trail in Bellevue and $16 million for finally repaving and remaking the Burke-Gilman Trail through UW campus. And those are just a couple examples of the $235 million in biking and walking projects across the state that are at risk.

When you add transit funding, the total comes to about $2 billion in quality projects providing non-driving options and safe streets around the state.

Cascade Bicycle Club joined WA Bikes Monday morning in calling for the Governor to find another way to get the fuels standards passed. This choice between safety and fuel standards is a false construct:

While we applaud the governor’s commitment to combating climate change, it should not come at the cost of all of the funding for bicycling he and the legislature just approved.

Obviously, we are not against the governor’s fuel standards. Ten percent fewer greenhouse gases by 2027 is a good thing. But just imagine how much better we would do if Washington residents had more transportation options.

Half of all trips are less then three miles. Imagine if the state invested boldly in providing safe biking and walking routes connecting neighborhoods to parks, business centers and schools. Many people would happily shift a huge number of those short car trips to non-motorized modes, reducing congestion, improving public health and cutting greenhouse gases. As a bonus, fewer people would die in traffic collisions and our communities would be better places to live.

But that kind of leadership was totally absent from transportation talks this year in the state legislature. WA Bikes and partners did what they could to get some good bike/walk funding squeezed in, but the package as a whole is a highway spending orgy. Shifting the multimodal funding to spend even more on highways is a totally backwards way for Governor Inslee to boost his environmental bona fides.

Inslee could have been a leader on truly efficient, sustainable and healthy transportation, which is why this is so distressing. It doesn’t matter if you make gasoline slightly less damaging to the environment if you commit the state to drive even more than we already do. With enemies like Inslee, oil companies don’t need friends.

And once again, biking and walking safety is thrown under the bus (which, of course, now runs on a reduced schedule).

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20 Responses to Gov. Inslee tries to save face on climate change by spending bike/walk money on highways

  1. Charles B says:

    This is exactly why the poison pill was such a bad bargain.

    It pits natural allies against each other.

    It feels like betrayal.

    Another source for funding needs to be foumd to replace the lost funds before this kind of action can be done confidently.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Yup. If you’re arguing over what to cut — fuel standards or bike/walk/transit money — while the 94 percent for highways is safe and sound, you’ve already lost.

  2. AW says:

    Do you mean the missing sections of the bike trail along SR 520 and not I 90 ? That is a very dangerous section with no real alternative routes. This decision will cause people to be hurt or perhaps killed.

  3. Charlie says:

    Thanks for spelling this out so clearly Tom. The cascade email didn’t really help make it clear why the transportation package money is so vital for the environment too (not to mention the safety issues) as you did. So, I took the below two graphs from your post and put them in my message to the governor (citing and linking to the blog, of course).

    Inslee once again fails to make the connection between highways and greenhouse gases, despite the fact that the state’s Department of Ecology says half of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. By abandoning the only funds in the transportation package that would actually help residents of our state get around without a car, he’s not doing the environment any favors.

    But far worse, the money he’s considering pulling is designed to prevent people from being killed or seriously injured while walking or biking. This isn’t just horse trading one environmental policy for another. These are lives we’re talking about.

    Thank you for the clear, concise argument.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Thanks, Charlie. And for the record, Cascade’s email linked to the WA Bikes action page: http://wabikes.org/advocacy/

      In general, WA Bikes tries not to highlight the benefits of more and safer walking and biking for environmental causes, which are very much tied up in party politics. Part of the reason this much walk/bike money made it in at all was due to bipartisan support, which is a good thing for walking and biking.

      Now, we can debate until we’re blue in the face whether environmental issues should be separated from walk/bike efforts. But I’d argue that if WA Bikes led their work this session by saying bike/walk money is vital for stopping climate change, we’d have ended up with whatever is left in the dust pan rather than the hearty table scraps we got.

      EVERYTHING IS BACKWARDS! OK, deep breath in…. hold it… now let it out. Ahhhhh.

      This session was flawed at its core. We never had the leadership on a truly innovative and bold transportation package that would truly address the safety, maintenance and transit our state needs. And we never had leadership tying highway expansion to climate change. I think it’s unreasonable to expect WA Bikes to make this connection all on their own. If there were leadership they could help boost, that’s one thing. But I honestly think Blake and his team did as good a job as they could navigating the dysfunctional family that is our state legislature. And I don’t think they can blamed for assuming Inslee weren’t lying in wait to screw them over like that scene in Breaking Bad with Gus and box cutter. We’re Victor, minus the meth (if you don’t know this reference, I urge you not to Google that).

  4. Southeasterner says:

    Not sure I understand Inslee. Why not just drop the fuel standards idea, which I thought he did with the transp bill, and focus on the carbon tax (which isn’t called out in the poison pill)? It’s already gaining widespread support and there is a ballot initiative that looks like it’s going forward.

    We would be consistent with BC, have a (less) regressive tax that could be used to decrease a very regressive sales tax, and it would do just as much, if not more, to decrease carbon intensive fuel use.

    If Inslee thinks he’s going to make up for the loss in revenue from the poison pill through additional legislature in the next session he is living in a dream world.

    • Scott says:

      I have been curious about the carbon tax ballot initiative as well. Would a carbon tax passed by ballot trigger the poison pill?

  5. (Another) Tom says:

    “Let’s rewind: 94 percent of the $15 billion package is already directed to highways, and most of that funding will go to new highways or highway expansion projects (not necessary maintenance or paying off previous highway-building loans).”

    So why aren’t our progressive lawmakers inserting our own poison pills?

    How about no new highway projects until our existing roads are up-to-date on maintenance and paid for.

  6. Harrison Davignon says:

    Why is he doing this. There bad roads all around us that need repair. One of the brick streets I bicycle road on in Seattle and it was so uneven, I got rattled pretty good. There are so many bad roads, horrible traffic and yet there is a proposal to put 94 percent of transportation funding toward new highways and new roads? I would say 20 percent of transportation funding into bicycle riding and walking, 20 percent to transit, 30 percent to repairing existing roads and 10 percent to new roads and highways, only if necessary. Come on jay inslee, you can do better. Let’s better invest our money and don’t let big oil or politicians win.

  7. asdf2 says:

    Knowing the way politics works (without having read the details), I’m about 98% confident that the fuel standards proposal is going to be full of giveaway to special interests and not actually reduce carbon emissions in any meaningful way.

    Effectively, what Inslee is proposing is trading walk/bike funds for special interests, such as ethanol suppliers. I hope the walk/bike organizations have stronger lobbyists than the other special interests, but I’m not holding my breath.

  8. BellevueTheBikable says:

    What are the chances of getting an initiative to dismantle this whole pile of garbage? I can’t believe that my state is going to build NEW wasteful freeway capacity to such this extent. We can’t even maintain what we have now! This highway bill is irresponsible on our safety, health and welfare, budget, and our climate. This is a mistake that will go down in the history books and future generations will not look kindly on these actions.

  9. Ballmontian says:

    $14.1 billion for new highways. This just proves that cars are communist!

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  11. Bob Hall says:

    Ugh, this whole thing makes me sick.

    Where is the leadership??? Where are the progressives, or even the Democrats on this issue? How can we call ourselves a “green” state yet fund highways more and more?

    I take real issue with calling chunks of money “biking/walking money”. The idea that building ways for people to walk and bike is some kind of giveaway goodie is absurd. There are two types of land use: 1) gridded, dense, urban form and 2) dendritic, sprawling, highway-based development. Creating more of Type 2 and then earmarking some money for bike trails is NOT “bicycle infrastructure.” Building more of Type 1 means that the built environment is human scaled, and is therefore inherently walkable and bikable, sometimes without any bicycle-specific infrastructure at all!

    Where is the politician or advocacy group that will fight for stopping more Type 2 building? Where is the leadership? It seems like even the bike orgs are just fighting for an increase in “bicycle spending”, which again, is incredibly short sighted and doesn’t address the core problem.

  12. South King County says:

    Well, I checked out the list of projects and if you live in the Eastside or in Seattle, I’d see why you wouldn’t want the Governor to cut choose to swallow the pill. For folks like me in South King County, where we have the absolute traffic problems in the entire state and there really isn’t a project in the works to improve that besides more road spending (which is really needed), I would encourage the Guv to swallow away. The climate standards need to be passed. The bike paths can wait. Perhaps King County get a new bicycle tax to pay for my paths?

    • Jeremy says:

      Even yet more public road spending will somehow magically whisk away your traffic woes? Odds are, with all that new pavement, you’ll end up a) still congested, only now with insufficient private revenue to maintain all that new (and expensive) road (as there’s still a rush hour crush but lacking tax revenue for maintenance due to, I don’t know, such factors as the Vehicle Miles Traveled flatline and construction costs rising faster than inflation) or b) no congestion, but still insufficient private revenue to maintain all that road (see: Iowa DOT Director’s recent comments to the effect of “the system is going to shrink”).

      (For an indication of just how broken the system is, the Federal Highway Trust Fund is totally insolvent, and has been being bailed out from the General Fund for a number of years now. Look to Congress to boldly kick the can down the road, again, given that the fund, once again, is gone done and spent this 31st.)

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