The final hours of the 2022 legislative session on Thursday night brought the last votes needed to bring the Move Ahead Washington transportation package to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk. With his signature, the state will enter its next phase of transportation investment and step into the Move Ahead Washington era.
The nearly $17 billion, 16-year transportation package was tweaked a bit by the legislative process after it was introduced on February 8, but remains largely unchanged from what was proposed then. The biggest adjustment made during that time was the removal of a proposed 6 cent fuel export tax, a concept developed as an alternative to raising the state gas tax, but one that proved intensely unpopular with leaders in neighboring states. The threat of that export tax being bogged down in legal challenges was likely a big impetus for it being pulled from the package as Move Ahead Washington passed the House, with most of the funds being replaced by a diversion from the state’s General Fund and from the Public Works trust fund account. That swap left a small funding gap that was filled by taking a number of road-focused projects out of the package, with the largest projects remaining fully intact. Among the cuts was funding for lidding I-5 in Downtown Seattle.
But because the investments in transit and active transportation are set to see funding from the state’s cap-and-invest carbon pricing program, those funds remained untouched, leaving what are certainly the biggest investments in sustainable transportation in the state’s history intact. To be clear, that’s a low bar to clear, with previous packages allocating less than 10% of their budgets toward multimodal transportation. That number is now around 18% in Move Ahead Washington.
This new era will not represent a complete sea change from the 2015 transportation package, dubbed Connecting Washington, but it will represent several significant shifts in how the state funds mobility investments. The Connecting Washington era was epitomized by its megaprojects: the package funded the Puget Sound Gateway highway expansions, I-5 expansion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Seattle portion of SR 520, widening of I-405, expansion of I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass, and extending US 395 through the middle of Spokane. That doesn’t meant the megaproject era is over, far from it: Move Ahead Washington is actually coming to the rescue of many of these projects as costs have escalated and the pandemic has caused expensive delays.
But Move Ahead Washington has few megaprojects. The biggest is I-5 widening in Vancouver that is paired with replacing the Columbia River bridge, a vestige of planning predating even Connecting Washington, and at this point a question of legacy for many of the people involved in the project. The fact that this highway expansion, which could see total costs of $5 billion, is the exception that proves the rule seems to signal how appetites for incredibly large highway projects are waning in the Evergreen State.
It’s definitely still too early to pronounce the age of the megaproject anywhere close to over: $210 million for the US 2 trestle could easily lead to additional calls for a larger expansion project on that highway. $75 million for I-5 at the Nisqually Delta will certainly prompt many to call for the expansion of I-5 there in future packages. Moreover, $640 million for SR 18 widening of dubious value could lead to more widening at the next bottleneck down the road. Democrats in the legislature had started signaling the need for a new package even before this one had passed.
A coalition of climate and safe streets groups, which included Front and Centered, 350 Washington, Sierra Club, and The Urbanist among others, urged the legislature to pare back highway megaprojects instead of cutting other investments. They rallied supporters to send more than 1,800 letters, but ultimately failed to win legislators over to that approach. The failure to trim any of the big ticket highway projects underscored that transactional politics and economic boosterism continue to drive state transportation packages more than climate and safety imperatives.
In a statement after the package passed, Front and Centered, 350 Washington, and Disability Mobility Initiative highlighted the climate and pollution costs the package entailed.
“We celebrate the historic investments in transit, bike, and pedestrian projects in this transportation package,” said Paulo Nunes-Ueno from Front and Centered. “At the same, this transportation package represents a severe failure to take climate and environmental justice seriously. The package spends over $4 billion expanding highway capacity, the majority of which will impact the communities in Washington which are most overburdened by pollution according to the state’s own Environmental Health Disparities Map.”
The three groups argued promised congestion relief would not materialize due to induced demand, but they tallied the real climate pollution expected to be generated using the Rocky Mountain Institute’s travel calculator.
“When we build highways, it never relieves congestion because people change their driving habits and the lanes fill again,” the groups wrote. “Highway expansion results in expanded air pollution and climate change. Yet lawmakers are investing $11 billion in roads, negatively impacting 37 of the most vulnerable communities in the state. What’s more, the 13 biggest highway projects would add 8.8 million metric tons of C02 by 2050, and 954 million vehicle miles traveled, at a crucial moment for climate. This brings even more air pollution to overburdened communities, violates state emissions targets, wastes public funds and threatens the future of all Washingtonians.”
The climate groups were also not fans of raiding the General Fund or Public Works trust fund.
“Not only is road expansion harmful, it is doubly so when it is funded with revenue that could be used to meet our other urgent needs, like affordable housing, healthcare, education, rural broadband, potable water, and disaster response,” they wrote. “We strongly disagree with the legislature’s use of billions of General Fund and Public Works dollars to expand highways.”
Despite the package’s shortcomings, there are signs of the start of a systemic shift. The language in Move Ahead Washington includes a new complete streets requirement for state transportation projects over $500,000 that start design later than this summer. The new requirements stipulate that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) must “plan, design, and construct facilities providing context sensitive solutions that contribute to network connectivity and safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people accessing public transportation and other modal connections, such facilities to include Americans with disabilities act accessible sidewalks or shared-use paths, bicyclist facilities, and crossings as needed to integrate the state route into the local network,” as part of any new highway project. The department must also incorporate speed limit reductions into its projects as well. These added requirements could have ripple effects for years to come.
“Just over a year ago, we started mobilizing non-drivers to insist that our mobility needs be included, and it’s exciting and empowering to see how this organizing and coalition building has shifted the funding priorities of this package,” said Anna Zivarts, who is director of Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington in a statement. “We can’t wait to continue building this movement and holding our leaders accountable to building a future that works for us…”
These policy shifts arrives at a time of high need, as the state grapples with a spike in road deaths that is particularly pronounced amongst people walking on state roads. Not just a Washington State problem, the pedestrian safety crisis worsened even in a time of declining vehicle miles traveled during the pandemic, with increasing fatalities likely linked to increased speeding on less traffic-clogged roads and an increasingly supersized American vehicle fleet that is deadlier to pedestrians caught in collisions. In 2021, traffic deaths hit 649 on Washington state roads — the highest total since 2005.
One of the most dangerous roads in the state — Aurora Avenue — got a boost in the package with a $50 million allocation to redesign a particularly crash-prone stretch of the state highway in North Seattle. The Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) Coalition (of which The Urbanist is a member) and the Aurora Reimagined Coalition pushed for the funding and hope to see a bold overhaul of the street to provide consistent sidewalks throughout and improve intersection treatments and transit operations.
What are some of the other touchstones that are likely to mark the Move Ahead Washington era?
Increased funding for public transit will be at the top of the list. The state has largely abandoned funding operating expenses, i.e. what it costs to actually get buses on the road, since the 1990s. In 1999, the State of Washington contributed around one-third of all revenues raised by transit agencies across the state. Then the legislature took direction from Tim Eyman’s first $30 car tab initiative and slashed that contribution. In 2020, the state contribution to operating expenses statewide was 1.6%.
The $1.45 billion that Move Ahead Washington includes for transit support grants won’t change the game entirely. Transit agencies should see around $90 million per year, with around one-third of that poised to go toward the state’s largest transit agency, King County Metro. But that’s actually low relative to how many people that agency moves, thanks to a cap built into the legislative language, which should lead to smaller agencies having access to fund amounts that could be more transformative. Beyond grants, Spokane was also the beneficiary of a $50 million allocation for its Division Street bus rapid transit, which is slated to open in 2027 and use zero emission electric buses.
With that increased funding will come a visible symbol of the Move Ahead Washington era: free transit for kids. In order to receive those transit support grants, agencies must adopt a free fare program for riders under 18. This will include Washington State Ferries and Amtrak Cascades, giving young riders an all-access pass to the full transit network in Washington. Lawmakers hope this will lead to a culture of transit riding, but it will be up to the rest of the investments in the package to make transit the right choice for many. Transit will need to be a reliable and convenient option to keep young riders once they age out of free fares.
The package is also set to approximately double the amount of safe routes to school and bicycle and pedestrian projects that local governments receive state funding to build. These won’t come with a Move Ahead Washington stamp, but will help fill in a huge funding gap. Right now, there are many more requests for funding submitted than there are funds to provide, leading to both poor outcomes as needed projects have remained uncompleted and staff time at local agencies has been wasted.
Move Ahead Washington also allocates a big share of funding toward providing bicycle education in schools around Washington. One grant program will be geared at elementary and middle school students, and another will be geared at junior and high school levels. Kids participating in the program will have the opportunity to receive a free bike and all of the necessary accessories. In other words, school students at all Washington state schools over the next decade or so will probably remember the bike education program funded by Move Ahead Washington, if not the name of the transportation package.
Move Ahead Washington will also lead to an increase in the ability for cities and towns to install automatic speed ticket cameras. There were a few bills proposed by different lawmakers to expand authority of cities to place cameras, but they all ended up folded into the Move Ahead package. The expanded authority will allow two new types of cameras: cities can add as many cameras as they want in areas directly outside hospitals, public parks, and within a school’s designated walk area (which usually extends a mile or so from the school). Additionally, cities will also be able to add speed cameras at problematic locations identified in a road safety plan and at intersections that have high crash rates. However, cities can only install cameras under that set of criteria at a rate of one camera per 10,000 residents. So a city like Seattle could add over 70 automatic speed cameras at problematic locations, while Leavenworth, which has a lot of traffic compared to its population due to tourism, can only add one camera.
The new language around automatic speed cameras also stipulates that half of the revenue from all of the new cameras authorized by Move Ahead Washington be given back to the state’s Cooper Jones Active Transportation Safety Account. Previously we reported on how the traffic safety commission had decided to utilize funds placed in that account: rather than directly funding safety improvements, the money is proposed to be spent building up capacity at WSDOT to help cities, towns, and tribes apply for the safe routes to school and bike/pedestrian grants mentioned earlier. But this new money is potentially a much bigger amount than was at play there, with cities and towns across the state potentially providing funding. One possible outcome of Move Ahead Washington here is further empowerment of the traffic safety commission to make direct improvements to improve safety.
The question of the day, however, remains whether or not Move Ahead Washington will lead to a complete rethinking of how Washington approaches state transportation funding. As it stands, the answer appears to be only if the state continues to build on the positive changes included in this package. For people who want to see the state invest more in transit and infrastructure for walking, biking, and rolling, there is a lot to feel encouraged by in Move Ahead Washington, yet even the record-setting amounts of funding provided to transit and safe routes to school won’t be enough if they are not matched by financial support from local governments and further funding increases from the state legislature. For example, the $150 million delegation for high speed rail in the package has the potential to lead to transformative changes in how Washingtonians travel, but following through on the the creation of a high speed rail line will likely prove a much heavier lift. Move Ahead Washington setting a solid foundation for state transportation investments, but the need to create a transportation system that adequately reduces carbon emissions and equitably serves people who cannot drive rises up to a much higher ceiling than it can currently reach. And so, the work is just beginning.
Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.