Comment: State transportation budget can’t leave anyone behind

Projects to aid pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled need greater funding than allocated.

By Anna Zivarts / For The Herald

A quarter of Washington state’s population doesn’t have a driver’s license, and we know that with the current economic crisis, there are even more people in our communities who can’t afford to own or drive a vehicle.

Black, Indigenous and people of color, immigrants, poor people, elderly and disabled people are much less likely to have a driver’s license or access to a vehicle.

The Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington has spent the last three months conducting more than 80 interviews covering nearly every legislative district in the state. So far, in these interviews, available at disabilityrightswa.org/storymap, two major themes have emerged.

First, many parts of our state lack accessible sidewalks or safe ways to cross the street. This means that instead of being able to walk or roll to the nearest transit stop or grocery store, we are trapped at home, reliant on rides from others. I’ve spoken to many disabled Washingtonians who would prefer to be able to walk or roll to a local store or the nearest transit stop, but because there are no sidewalks or safe crossing infrastructure where they live, they have to rely on paratransit.

Our cities and counties are eager to make investments; for the 2021-23 grant cycle

the state Department of Transportation received 242 applications requesting $190 million for Safe Routes to School and Pedestrian and Bicycle Program grants. However, WSDOT anticipates only being able to support fewer than 20 percent of the proposals with available funding.

Even with the additional $20 million for bike and pedestrian grants in the governor’s budget, there’s still a $170 million gap. And WSDOT acknowledges that the demand is even greater, but many jurisdictions, knowing how limited the funding is and how narrow the odds are of getting their project selected, have stopped applying for the grants.

On state highways, as part of their Draft Active Transportation Plan, WSDOT has recently identified $5.7 billion in investments to repair gaps and barriers that exist for people trying to walk or roll through our communities. In this year’s biennial budget, there’s $6.4 million for bike and pedestrian safety improvements. It’s a troubling small number considering that $31.1 million is slated for highway rest area renovations.

Second, the critical importance of frequent and reliable fixed-route transit. While some disabled people exclusively rely on paratransit or rides from community providers, the overwhelming majority of people use fixed-route transit exclusively, or in combination with paratransit — for example, using paratransit in the winter when sidewalks are inaccessible.

The Regional Mobility Grant Program at WSDOT, which supports transit agencies and is especially critical for smaller agencies in more rural regions, saw higher demand than avaialble funding by more than $30 million (or 60 percent) for the 2021–2023 grant cycle.

It isn’t sufficient to fund paratransit/door-to-door service. Disabled people across our state also rely on fixed-route transit. We need our state to invest in fixed-route transit and the sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure to be able to use it.

In the biennial transportation budget (HB 1135/SB 5165) we need greater investments in public transit and active transportation, and because of this unmet need, we should not be using revenue from the multimodal account to pay for projects that could be funded with unrestricted gas tax revenue. Specifically, we should not be funding ferry electrification — at $93.7 million — by diverting funding from the multimodal account.

We urge you to instead dedicate that funding to investments in the account that can only be funded with restricted funds. For example, the $170 million of unmet need identified by WSDOT’s bike, pedestrina and safe routes grant applications, or the $30 million needed to fully fund the regional mobility grant program.

Transportation Secretary Roger Millar discussed in this year’s presentation to the House Transportation Committee how pedestrian projects on average create 22 percent more jobs than road projects, and bike projects create 46 percent more jobs. These contracts are also more likely to go to smaller, women- and minority-owned businesses who may lack the resources to invest in the expensive machinery needed for larger highway projects. In this moment of economic crisis, it’s common sense to invest in the projects that create the most jobs, especially if those jobs are more likely to go to highly impacted communities.

In the proposed transportation package, we are excited to see the increased investments in public transit and pedestrian access and equity reflected in both Senate and House packages. In the House package, we also support the inclusion of the transit access and affordability grants. And we would like to see the final transportation package fully fund the $5.7 billion identified by WSDOT to repair bike and pedestrian gaps in the state highway system.

We will continue to advocate to fully fund unmet transit and paratransit and bike and pedestrian access needs. These investments will not only increase community access for the disabled community, they are also critical green investments in a sustainable future for all people in our state.

Anna Zivarts represents Disability Rights Washington’s mobility initiative on state and regional transportation and equity panels.

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