Reprinted with permission from “The Urbanist”.
On March 9, advocacy groups Front and Centered and Disability Rights Washington held the first of a series of press conferences calling on Washington state lawmakers to stop spending on new highways. Instead, the coalition urges lawmakers to prioritize investments in building missing sidewalks and creating reliable transit and paratransit systems for all cities in Washington.
BIPOC & Disabled Washingtonians: No New Highways Until We Have Sidewalks and Reliable Transit!
Visit us tomorrow at 11 a.m. in Tacoma or on Zoom.
Details: https://t.co/eF5hgdudsm pic.twitter.com/rRlAnTpvfW
– Disability Mobility Initiative (@dismobility) March 8, 2021
To highlight the need, the press conference shared the testimony of Krystal Monteros, a Tacoma-based wheelchair user and Pierce Transit driver. Monteros, who previously published an editorial with The News Tribune about her ongoing problems with Tacoma’s patchwork road network, showed how to access the bus stop near her home, the wheelchair must be rolled to 56th Street, a thoroughfare with fast traffic . Monteros also stated that she would have preferred to rent an apartment in a cheaper building further west on 56th Street, a decision made impossible by the lack of sidewalks on that stretch of street.
“To ensure mobility equity in Tacoma, we need full connectivity between living, transit and destinations,” said Tracy Oster, executive director of Downtown On the Go, Tacoma’s transportation organization. “Nobody should limit themselves to where they can live or where they can go because there is a lack of accessible infrastructure. Repairing missing or inaccessible sidewalks must be a priority and we encourage lawmakers to include funding for these projects in the next transportation package. “
Monteros is far from alone in their struggles with unsafe road conditions in Tacoma. Against the backdrop of the press conference, a man with crutches was trying to get to the same Pierce Transit bus stop that Monteros had described as unsafe.
To shed light on these struggles, Disability Rights Washington released its Transportation Access Storymap, which highlights how people without a license (roughly a quarter of the state’s population) control access to vital services. The project attracted quite a few glances; An article about Leigh Spruce featured on the storymap was recently published in Everett’s Herald.
A missing sidewalk map provided by the city of Tacoma vividly illustrates the ubiquitous nature of the problem. But Tacoma is not alone. Even Seattle, consistently rated as one of America’s most walkable cities, has its fair share of problems on the sidewalk. The city of Seattle estimates that 24% of Seattle’s streets (11,000 blocks) are absent from sidewalks. Currently, Seattle can build about 25 new sidewalks annually.
A map of the missing sidewalks in Tacoma shows widespread loopholes. Image: City of Tacoma
In Tacoma, current city policy allows the city to build new sidewalks only after an owner has built a new home or remodeled a home with an improvement rate greater than 51%. Additionally, neighbors can organize a local improvement district to self-fund road improvements, including installation on the sidewalk.
It is estimated that the total cost of labor and supplies in Tacoma is about $ 8.26 per square foot of sidewalk. Therefore, installing a mile of new sidewalks four feet wide, the minimum for a residential street in most communities, would cost approximately $ 174,451.
Because of these guidelines, most Tacoma residents, approximately 17% of whom live in poverty, have no way of building or upgrading sidewalks. The current system, based on new developments or private investment, is designed to increase infrastructure disparities in a city already grappling with the effects of gentrification.
Like Monteros, many Tacoma residents are unhappy with the current situation. A 2020 survey conducted by the city found that less than half of residents (44%) were happy with the current road conditions. The city aims to improve the situation with an ambitious priority network for pedestrians. However, expanding the network requires a significant increase in investment not only in sidewalks but also in pedestrian signals and other improvements at intersections.
The suburbs of Tacoma do not have access to facilities and mixed-use centers. Image: City of Tacoma
Proponents have been calling for the need to expand sidewalks, ADA accessible infrastructure, and access to reliable transit and paratransit across Washington state for decades. But progress has been slow. Investments in motorways and other vehicle infrastructures were consistently prioritized over active transport infrastructures in the billions. For example, this year the Washington State Democrats proposed investing more than ever in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation. However, even the most ambitious proposal has more than double the budget for highway-related spending ($ 17 billion) than for projects to reduce carbon emissions ($ 8 billion).
In terms of real investment, this means less support for Safe Travel Grants (SRTS) and pedestrian and cycling programs. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), less than 20% of grant proposals may receive funding during the 2021-2023 grant cycle. A nationwide map with the exact locations of unfunded bicycle, pedestrian and SRTS projects can be viewed in Google Maps.
The current financing package under consideration by the legislator would remain in force for 16 years. Because of this, proponents are now pushing lawmakers to radically shift priorities.
“The way we funded transportation has left out too many people, mostly people of color and poor communities, but everyone who doesn’t drive,” said Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered. “Rules that were enacted in 1944 – before the era of civil rights – still determine where and how we invest our transport money. We can do better. Backfilling the human-scale means of transportation we need for a fairer, greener future requires the same tenacity and focus that helped us build our amazing auto-centered highways and back roads. “
Readers can keep up with the coalition’s advocacy work by following Front and Centered and Disability Rights Washington on social media.
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