The only problem with “walk to school day” in Coupeville, Island County, on Whidbey Island, is that not every student has a path to walk.
“There are some routes where kids live where they’re walking on the street or there’s no bike lane,” said Donna Keeler, Coupeville’s planning director.
This is just the sort of problem the state’s “active transportation” grants are meant to address — a pot of money for communities to build out bike and pedestrian projects and safe routes to school.
But despite its clear need, Coupeville hasn’t submitted a proposal for years. With a minuscule staff, the time and resources it takes the local government to piece together an application — three weeks of full-time work, in Keeler’s estimation — has not been worth the long odds of securing the funding.
“Here, we only have three people in our department,” said Keeler. “Taking someone off of long-range planning to work on this, it’s hard.”
In the 2022 legislative session, Democrats approved billions in new spending on transit, bike and pedestrian projects, a sea change from the transportation funding measures of the past. While the 16-year, $17 billion measure still spends heavily on highway projects, its backers also point to the $3 billion for transit and $1.2 billion for walking and biking as “historic” investments.
But unlike the dollars set aside for major road and highway projects, much of those earmarked for nonvehicle transportation options come in the form of grants. The result is that the path between money promised and money spent can be a winding one.
The challenge of pushing large amounts of new money out the door for transit is a good problem to have, said Don Chartock, deputy director of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s public transportation division, but one that will nevertheless take some careful planning. Transit agencies must work out how to make ridership for people 18 and under free, a requirement to be eligible for the new grant dollars. They’ll also have to find enough drivers and staff to back up their newly increased budgets.
When it comes to walking and biking projects, state officials say their biggest challenge is reaching the small towns and communities that may benefit from new money, but that long ago stopped applying for funding because it wasn’t worth the effort, like Coupeville. In the 2021 funding cycle, the state received nearly $200 million in applications but awarded just under $50 million. Large cities like Seattle have dedicated staff to hone proposals for projects like the one near Lowell Elementary, which received $442,000 from the state to install speed bumps, new signage and a bike route. That’s not the case for many smaller towns.
The new money should increase access to both transit and bike and pedestrian corridors. But there’s a tension between speed and accountability.
“It is always trying to find the sweet spot between having steps to make sure we’re responsible and finding the way to be efficient and get the money out,” said Chartock.
It’s already free to ride a bus within Mason County, where riders can hop on and off without a pass. But to win money from the state, the county must nevertheless report out the number of passengers under 19.
“There are some issues that we may have to work around in terms of trying to figure out how we’re going to identify youth,” said Amy Asher, general manager of Mason Transit Authority.
The new state transit dollars — nearly an additional $400 million every two years — are highly appealing because they’re flexible, said Asher. That means, pending board approval, Mason County could choose to increase service, buy new buses or improve its facilities. So long as transit agencies agree to make ridership free for everyone under 19, they’re eligible.
Justin Leighton, executive director of the Washington State Transit Association, expects nearly every transit agency in Washington to seek money from the state for just this reason. He pointed to Skagit Transit, which has struggled for years to raise money to rebuild its operation and maintenance facility, as an example of potential uses for the new money.
“Skagit Transit is going to get $5 million for that facility, which is going to help finally complete that project,” he said. “There are cases like that across the state.”
Still, the challenges of implementation will be formidable, made more so by ongoing staffing shortages at every level of government. The thorniest is tracking people 18 and under.
“How do we tell if you’re 17 or 18? And do we want our operators to be determining that at the door? We do not,” he said. “So we’ve got to figure out how we do that.”
For larger agencies that do charge fares, the question is how to tailor their current system for people under 19. King County Metro will take a phased approach, said Ina Percival, supervisor of market and business development with the agency. In the near term, Metro will work to expand the programs it already has for youth fares, including by working with local school districts. But reaching every person under 19 will take longer. In the meantime, the bus service is unlikely to lay down a strict age line.
“The truth is we have a policy in place already at Metro that young people are not turned away from a coach,” she said. “And so we’ll be amplifying that message as we roll out this fully subsidized fare because we don’t intend to turn anybody away.”
Leighton said it’s work that can and will be done, eventually, even if it means going back to the Legislature next year for clarity.
“I do think that, by and large, everyone wants to do these things and are enthusiastic about these things,” said Chartock. “All of the challenges are about how we do this effectively and quickly. That’s what we’re going to be spending the next couple of months on.”
Less likely to apply
Only in the last few days did Keeler, of Coupeville, begin to think seriously about applying for state money.
“When you get an idea in your head that that grant’s too competitive, we wouldn’t even qualify, you kind of forget about it,” she said. “I hadn’t even looked at it.”
That inertia is a concern for Barb Chamberlain, director of WSDOT’s active transportation division. While WSDOT does a good job of awarding funding to a mix of communities, its reach is limited because so many communities don’t apply in the first place.
“If you’re a really small place, it’s not a joke to say sometimes it’s the same person who’s going to write the grant and then go out and do the work or it is the mayor who writes the proposals because that’s who has time to do it,” she said.
As a result, “what we really do see as a pattern is, places with higher rates of community poverty are less apt to apply,” she said.
The biggest changes to transit and pedestrian projects are not likely to begin showing up until next year, as grant applications are approved and policies begin to take shape.
For some accessibility advocates, the grant process for modes of transportation other than cars stands in sharp contrast to how highway projects are funded.
“With highway projects, it’s not the same sort of grant situation, where people have to compete against each other,” said Anna Zivarts, director of the disability mobility initiative. “Could there be a different way of getting the funding to do the infrastructure improvements that need to get out the door?”