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Senate transportation bill now moving through the House includes $1.3 billion for walking and biking safety

As soon as Washington State legislators released their Move Ahead Washington transportation funding proposal earlier this month, it drew a wave of enthusiastic support from transportation organizations across the state. Lee Lambert, Executive Director of Washington Bikes, called the investments in walking and biking “unprecedented.” And he’s right.

The 16-year, $16 billion “Move Ahead Washington” package passed in the Senate this week with about $1.3 billion for walking and biking safety included. As a percentage of the total, that is far better than what the legislators were discussing during the 2021 session from a safe streets and transit perspective. It is also about four-times better than the “Connecting Washington” funding package legislators passed in 2015 with a Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House. Connecting Washington only carved out about 6% of its funding for walking, biking and transit. As pitiful as that was, it was about double the amount in the previous transportation package. Now with both chambers under the control of Democrats, this package is a test of whether the party is willing to invest significantly more seriously in safe streets and transit. The Senate passed the bill along party lines without support from Republicans.

Move Ahead Washington would massively increase statewide Safe Routes to School funding, which is also a big investment in neighborhood safety. The bill would also fund a major expansion of school-based bicycle education and a fund a free bike program for students. It also includes a state-led complete streets effort, which is a huge deal. State routes are very often the most dangerous streets in any city or community that has one. Cities still have a lot of work to do to make their own streets safer, but they can only do so much for their communities without state action.

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The package also funds a list of specific walking and biking projects including major trail improvements, such as the I-90 Trail in Bellevue and the EasTrail. You can check out the bill text and supporting documents as passed by the Senate on the Senate’s budget bills website. Here’s the walking and biking project list:

Wasling and biking Project list. PDF version linked in the caption.

Still, it is a state transportation package, so it’s not the funding bill of my dreams. For example, it includes about $4 billion for highway expansion projects, Ryan Packer reported for The Urbanist. Many legislators of both parties still can’t shake the idea that transportation packages need to expand highways. The biggest single project would fund Washington’s part of the controversial I-5 “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. Replacing the aging bridge is not itself a bad idea. But so far designs have called for a major freeway expansion that would cover more land and lead to significantly more vehicle trips and emissions. Most of this megaproject is in Oregon, but Washington legislators should encourage the project team to study lower-cost and less-impactful design options that don’t increase vehicle emissions and reduces the freeway’s impact on downtown Vancouver. I am not familiar enough with which specific levers legislators can pull here, but this seems like a valuable moment to help locals pull that project back down to earth while still funding Washington’s part of a safe replacement bridge.

The Urbanist Editorial Board suggests cutting back on a handful of expensive highway expansion projects in order to reduce the package’s proposed $2 billion draw from the general fund. The general fund has very few restrictions on how it can be allocated, so the state could invest it in affordable housing or services to prevent homelessness, the Urbanist suggested. WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar has for years argued that much of the state’s transportation woes are the result of people lacking affordable housing options closer to jobs. “The single best thing that this body, the legislature, could do in addressing our transportation demand needs would be to address the need for affordable housing near where people work,” Millar told the House Transportation Committee in January. “Link transportation and land use. Make the choices about affordable housing linked to the choices about affordable transportation. Make it easy and safe to take short trips by walking and biking.”

But with time running out and the Senate version already passed, it may be a tough lift for the House to make such significant changes to the package. Any changes to the House version would then need to be passed again in the Senate. We will see soon how ambitious House leaders want to be with their changes.

While the package as is may be an incremental change that still has freeway expansion spending, it’s a pretty damn big increment. I haven’t even started talking about high speed rail funding or free transit for minors. There’s a lot to get excited about. The 2021 package was so disappointing that a coalition formed to kill the effort and urge Democrats to try again. Since then, Governor Jay Inslee appointed Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs as Secretary of State, making way for Marko Liias to take over as Committee Chair. If the legislature successfully passes the Move Ahead Washington package, the effort to sink the 2021 effort should be seen as heroic.

Here’s a statement from Washington Bikes on the transportation package (with updated numbers):

“The scale of walking and biking investment proposed in Move Ahead Washington is unprecedented,” said Lee Lambert, Executive Director for Washington Bikes. “By building more places to walk, bike and roll across Washington, we’re making our communities safer, and we’re giving future generations options to get around that don’t rely on fossil fuels or cars. The sidewalks, protected bike lanes and multi-use trails that will result from the Move Ahead Washington package will create healthy, happy, and more prosperous local communities.”

“Kids who walk, bike, and bus become adults who walk, bike, and bus – and this funding package will ensure a safe and healthy future for all of us,” Lambert added.

The $1.3 billion investment in biking, walking and rolling funding represents a four-fold increase over the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package, which included roughly $320 million for biking and walking. Right now, funding constraints mean that only one in five applications to the bike/ped and safe routes to schools grant programs receive funding – which leaves too many communities wanting, at a time when more people are biking than ever before due to the pandemic bike boom.

“This commitment to increase investments in biking and walking programs and projects comes at an important time,” said Vicky Clarke, Policy Director for Washington Bikes. “We are experiencing nothing short of a public health crisis on our streets, with deaths and serious injuries to people walking and biking increasing year on year. Investing in biking and walking ensures we can all get home safely – including our most vulnerable road users. Growing the bike/ped and safe routes to schools grant programs is essential in achieving our statewide goals of ending deaths and serious injuries on our streets.”

What’s in the package for biking, walking and rolling?

  • Program increases for WSDOT Safe Routes to Schools ($290m) and Bike/Ped Grant programs ($278m). These are competitive programs that local jurisdictions use to implement safe infrastructure around schools (Safe Routes to Schools) and across their communities (Bike/Ped Grant Program).
  • A new grant program; Reconnecting Communities ($50m). This program is intended to fund active transportation projects that undo harms in communities bisected by highways and other major transportation corridors.
  • A new school-based bike program ($216m) that will help teach youth critical skills to bike and walk safely.
  • Bike/Ped project list ($317m) for projects across Washington state. These improvements will create safe walking and biking connections by filling gaps in the current active transportation network, including both on-street bike networks and sidewalks, as well as trails. Some highlights:

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2 responses to “Senate transportation bill now moving through the House includes $1.3 billion for walking and biking safety”

  1. ronp

    This is amazing I think and shows what advocates can do with continued education of legislators! Keep up the great work people! (yeah more can be done but this seems significant).

    1. NoSpin

      Not to burst the bubble of advocacy and legislator education paying off, but this is only happening because of the deft political move of getting Sen. Hobbs out of the way.

      Gov. Inslee took advantage of an unforeseeable opportunity when a vacancy opened in the SoS office. Absent that, there would be zero change in the transportation status quo.

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