The 2021 state legislative session is closing with some wins for biking, progress on other priorities and a lot of uncertainty about the future of transportation funding in Washington.
A massive transportation funding bill loomed over the 2021 legislative session, but in the end did not move forward. With a pricetag as high as $26 billion over 16 years in the House version, the transportation bill took a lot of the oxygen out of the room throughout the session. But the House and Senate couldn’t put together something that could get enough votes in each chamber to pass.
The legislature did pass a two-year transportation budget that includes a “$10 million increase to active transportation grant programs,” according to Alex Alston at Washington Bikes. The Senate version of the budget did not initially have this increase, so this was a significant win for Safe Routes to School and the state’s bicycle and pedestrian grant programs.
The state also passed a law change that will allow regional transit authorities (like Sound Transit) to “establish an alternative fare enforcement system,” according to WA Bikes. Fare enforcement is extremely inequitable. As the Times’ Heidi Groover reported in 2019, 9% of Sound Transit riders were Black but 43% of fare evasion citations and 57% of misdemeanor allegations (cases sent to the county for review, but not necessarily charged) went to Black people.
The legislature also directed the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a public review of “e-bike use on natural surface trails and roads that are limited to non-motorized use to determine where e-bikes can ride and which classes of e-bikes are acceptable,” according to WA Bikes. This process could become controversial among mountain bikers and other trail users, but it’s a conversation we need to have. E-assist mountain bikes have boomed in popularity, and the technology has the potential to greatly expand access to mountain and gravel biking to more people. However, there is a legitimate fear of allowing high-power electric bikes on trails, especially as the line between e-assist bicycle and electric dirt bike gets blurred. Perhaps there’s a middle ground? Would Class 1 and 2 e-assist bikes (capped at 20 mph) be acceptable as they are in city bike lanes and trails? Should e-bikes be OK on gravel trails and roads but not singletrack? These are questions folks will need to discuss.
The legislature also sort of passed a cap and trade bill modeled on California’s system (and supported by British Petroleum and some other major polluters). BP spent nearly $13 million to defeat I-1631 a couple years ago. I say “sort of” because the bill will only go into effect in 2023 if the legislature can pass a transportation package by then. The bill has divided environmental groups, as KUOW reported.
Local environmental groups Climate Solutions and the Washington Environmental Council found themselves allied with big polluters BP and Puget Sound Energy in support of the plan.
Opposing the cap-and-trade bill left activist groups like Got Green and 350 Seattle in the unusual position of siding with Republicans as well as aluminum, cement, pulp, and steel manufacturers.
Of course, dividing environmental groups seems like great news for big polluters. This is why walking, biking and transit groups must stay together. Once groups start siding with, say, billions for new and expanded freeways, the narrative becomes that the walking, biking and transit groups are divided. And then highway interests win by default.
There is talk of a potential special session to pass a transportation package, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of momentum. But you never know. There are a lot of legislators who would love to bring home a big funding win, and unfortunately those “wins” are often in the form of major highway projects. That’s just how big infrastructure funding packages work, legislators will vote for the whole package if it includes a win for them and their district. The challenge to walking, biking and transit advocates is how to get more legislators to fight for local non-highway wins that they can celebrate back home. This is easier said than done.
A sales tax exemption for e-bikes passed the House, but died in the Senate. However, this was the first year for the bill, and it made significant progress. I think support was diminished because at the same time it was up for debate, Senator Hobbs was talking about increasing taxes on bike sales as part of his highways-focused transportation package. The idea of cutting sales tax for e-bikes but raising sales tax for lower-cost pedal bikes just made no sense, and this made it a little uncomfortable to fight hard for the e-bike exemption. The bike tax was wisely cut from the Hobbs plan before it ever reached the Senate floor, but the momentum for the e-bike measure had already been hampered. Legislators should try again next session.
More details about the session from WA Bikes:
Washington Bikes worked throughout the 105-day session to convey the immense need for greater investment in safer streets, accessible routes for people of all ages and abilities, and multimodal approaches that strengthen the transportation system as well as the communities it connects. We are celebrating small victories with the outcome of the two-year transportation budget, but we are poised for even more meaningful investments in a transportation revenue package when the Legislature reconvenes, due to our collective voices in support of active transportation investments this session. We were excited to see these investments come to life in the transportation budget, and we wanted to update you on the priorities that you worked so hard to advocate for alongside us this session.
- $10 million increase to active transportation grant programs: The Legislature passed a 2021-2023 two-year transportation budget. The House proposed version of the transportation budget included increases to the Safe Routes to School and Pedestrian and Bike grant programs, while the Senate proposed transportation budget held the active transportation grant programs at maintenance level. Washington Bikes is pleased to share, despite the constraints on the transportation budget, the final budget passed with a $10 million increase to the Safe Routes to School and pedestrian and bicycle grant programs. We look forward to continuing work to ensure there are increased state investments for active transportation as new and more flexible revenue is available, and we are grateful the incredible demand for bike and pedestrian safety projects were recognized with increased spending in the biennial budget.
- In the end, a transportation investment package did not make it through, but we couldn’t have gotten to where we did without your help. In the last committee meeting where the transportation revenue package was discussed we did hear from Senate transportation leaders that they hoped to see the House levels funded in the final investment proposal. That is progress and that leaves us in a good position for when this conversation picks back up again.
Where priority/partner legislation ended up:
HB 1330 – E-bike and e-bike equipment sales tax exemption. This will help make e-bikes more affordable and accessible to a wider audience.
- This measure failed to pass this session. However, we were excited to see it pass the House, and will continue to work with the Senate to understand e-bike affordability and access issues.
SB 5452 – Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Dept. of Natural Resources are directed to undergo a public process to collect information related to e-bike use on natural surface trails and roads that are limited to non-motorized use to determine where e-bikes can ride and which classes of e-bikes are acceptable on such roads and trails under the agencies’ management.
- Delivered to the Governor for signature
HB 1301 – Allows a regional transit authority (RTA) to establish an alternative fare enforcement system. This is a step towards decriminalization of transit fare enforcement.
- HB 1301 has been signed by the Governor and will be enacted 7/25/2021
HB 1099 – Improving the state’s climate response through updates to the state’s comprehensive planning framework.
- This measure passed the House, but failed to pass the Senate.
We are coming out of the 2021 session with increased funding for people who bike, walk and roll, but there is still so much work to be done. We’ll keep you posted for updates on a transportation investments proposal. There has been some talk that the Legislature might convene for a special session to pass a transportation investments package.