Safe Places to Ride in the State Transportation Budget: An Almost-End-of Session Update

The regular session of the state Legislature ended on April 28, but they’re not done yet. Legislators are due back in Olympia on Monday, May 13 for a special session to wrap up unfinished business. Funding for making it safer for people to bicycle is part of the discussion.

Legislators are still negotiating the capital construction budget. Both the House and Senate versions include a few million dollars for biking and walking trails, but they disagree over which projects will get funding. We’re hoping the final capital budget will include all of them. [For more details, including suggestions for contacting the key legislators who are negotiating the capital budget, click here.]

The regular two-year transportation budget is already settled. It is a status-quo, no-controversy, no-new-taxes budget. It includes about $29 million over the next two years for the Safe Routes to School grant program and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety grant program, both of which pay for sidewalks, bike lanes, cross walks, and other features that make roads safer to walk or bike. This amount is up from about $24 million in the previous transportation budget; thanks are due especially to Representative Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) and Senator Andy Billig (D-Spokane) for the increase. While it may seem like a lot of money, the biking and walking funding represents only 0.3% of the $8.7 billion transportation budget.

The big remaining controversy is the proposed transportation revenue package. If approved, this package would increase the gas tax plus various transportation-related fees to raise about $8.4 billion in additional revenue over the next twelve years. Unlike the regular transportation budget, this package is not required in order to continue the existing work of state government, so the Legislature might not approve any package if they cannot come to an agreement.

We strongly support efforts to address Washington State’s significant backlog of transportation needs, and have worked with legislators and other advocacy groups for several months to promote a forward-looking package.

Our transportation trends are clear: younger adults are driving a lot less than previous generations, more and more people are biking, and the number of older people who will need options other than drive-alone is increasing. Washington has previously adopted laws requiring cutting drive-alone trips, as well as laws requiring cutting climate pollution. An ideal package would help us meet the changing needs and challenges facing our transportation system.

Cascade Bicycle Club has mixed feelings about the transportation revenue package as currently proposed. We see both positive and negative aspects of the package under consideration.

GOOD: The package includes $365 million – or about $30 million per year – for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. These funds would go to the Safe Routes to School and Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety grant programs, as well as the Complete Streets program (which focuses on making roads more usable by everyone, including people who bike or walk, especially in commercial areas) and to assorted individual biking and walking projects. This is more money than has ever before been dedicated to bicycling and pedestrian needs in Washington.

BAD: This amount still represents just 3% of the total revenue package, which is actually smaller than the 4.1% of Washington commuters who commute by bike or on foot.

GOOD: The package includes about $900 million for road maintenance.

BAD: The state needs several billion dollars more just “to keep at least 90 percent of the state’s roadways in good or fair condition,” according to the Governor’s own task force. Public opinion polls say maintaining existing roads is the highest priority for voters, but only 12% of the package is directed to maintenance.

GOOD: The package includes some money for transit, ferries, rail, and managing polluted stormwater runoff from roads, including critical local funding options for transit.

BAD: A whopping 64% of the money goes to expanding roads, including billions for a few mega-highways.

In short, what began as an effort to address the critical transportation maintenance backlog – and what could have been a forward thinking new approach to providing transportation choices that meet everyone’s needs – fell back largely into the old pattern of building new roads to please a few highway interests and win over legislators who get roads built in their district. Unlike previous transportation revenue packages in 2003 and 2005, this package at least recognizes transportation is more than just roads, but it does not do nearly what is needed to support other modes of transportation.

Many of the best parts of the package came about when the House Transportation Committee amended it late in the session. Amendments sponsored by Representative Marko Liias (D-Mill Creek) added significantly more funding for bicycle, pedestrian, and transit needs.

Those amendments came under attack by lobbyists representing the trucking industry and AAA. Both complained about the small amount of money that would no longer be available for highways. (The next time someone claims that bicycle advocates want no new roads, remember how the highway lobbyists whined publicly at the mere possibility of getting less than two-thirds of all the money for road expansions.)

As the Legislature continues to debate the transportation revenue package, it is crucial to at least maintain the current level of funding to meet the long-neglected needs of people who bike, walk, or ride transit. We will work to protect the positive amendments added by the House Transportation Committee, and push to make the package better.

We will encourage legislators, now and in the future, to find a better balance of transportation funding, one that scales back the mega-highway projects that make our communities less sustainable and that uses the resulting savings to provide better transportation choices for everyone in Washington.

Reach out to legislators right now and encourage them to support biking, walking, and transit in any transportation revenue package.