Make way for walkers and cyclists

Here’s how great our concern for the condition of our roads, bridges and the other parts of our transportation infrastructure has grown in recent years: At least at the state level, Republicans were the ones to step forward with a gas tax increase to fund a $16 billion transportation package.

At the federal level, Congress has been using short-term reauthorizations to keep the Highway Trust Fund limping along this summer, but there’s hope for a longer-term bill that would begin to fix pot-holed highways, “structurally obsolete” bridges and lax safety standards for our railroads. Previously we’ve supported a six-year $478 billion transportation package proposed in the House and the 8- to 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to pay for it.

But in rebuilding roads and bridges, our focus can’t only be on the vehicles we drive. Our transportation spending has to make some provision for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists who travel on and alongside our roads. Since 2012, it has. Passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century program called for about 2 percent of federal transportation spending to go toward sidewalks, bike lanes, trails and related projects. About $820 million was spent in 2014 and again this year for such projects.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., who represents the 2nd District, joined with other House Democrats last week to call for continuation of MAP-21’s Transportation Alternatives Program. “Better bike and pedestrian infrastructure not only improves safety, it benefits people’s quality of life by cutting down on traffic congressional and pollution,” Larsen said in a statement.

Even shortly after its passage TAP has been targeted for elimination. A brief written last year for the Heritage Foundation argued that TAP should be eliminated because “federal gas tax dollars should be spent on national priorities.”

But these are national priorities:

  • The safety or kids walking to and from school and adults and seniors walking in their neighborhoods;
  • The safety of cyclists as they travel to and from school and jobs, using transportation that benefits our environment and their health;
  • The promotion of walking, running and cycling as recreation that makes us healthier and connects as with our neighbors; and
  • The benefit to local business that sidewalks provide in offering a safe path to their front doors.

Snohomish County, noting that nearly all 34 public schools in the county’s unincorporated areas have gaps in the safe pathways within a mile of the schools, created the Safe Kids, Improved Pathways program to begin to close those gaps. Each year about $550,000 from property taxes — about $5 a year for the owner of a $250,000 home — is used to widen roadway shoulders, create paths or build sidewalks and marked crosswalks near schools.

That’s a more-than-appropriate use of locally generated tax money, but local money won’t be enough to fund the work needed throughout our communities to improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

And if using up to 2 percent of federal highway funds for sidewalks, bike paths and other trails still doesn’t sound worthwhile, ask yourself as a motorist: How much do you enjoy driving past someone walking or cycling along the road.

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