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Nov. 26, 2022

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Cities, counties push for new bike and pedestrian money from Washington

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It’s been a long time since the town of Winthrop asked for money from Washington state for bicycle or pedestrian projects. The cost and burden of writing a grant application always outweighed the Methow Valley town’s chances of actually winning any funding.

But this year, town planner Rocklynn Culp decided to go for it. A bigger budget from the Legislature, combined with more proactive outreach from the state, tipped the balance back toward applying, for $250,000 to begin work on a missing block of sidewalk on the southern end of Winthrop’s Western-themed downtown.

After years of stagnating interest — and around $50 million available every two years — cities and counties across Washington have flooded the state with requests to build more and more ambitious projects for bicyclists, pedestrians and people traveling to and from schools. This year, more than $100 million is up for grabs.

When the application period closed May 30, the state had received $457 million in grant applications — nearly 2 1/2 times the $191 million requested for the last funding cycle in 2020.

For the lawmakers who pushed for more funding, it’s the sort of enthusiasm they’d hoped to see and affirmation that it’s not just the state’s largest urban areas hungry for investment in noncar modes of travel.

Some cities like Winthrop tossed their hats in after skipping the process for years, having gained some hope that there’s money enough to trickle into their communities: In the small town of Moxee, in Yakima County, officials asked for $610,280 for a sidewalk project; in Stanwood, they asked for $780,000; in Pateros, Okanogan County, $99,000.

“We have been asleep at the wheel regarding some of the grants that have been available in the past,” said Scott Duncan of Medical Lake, Spokane County — which is applying for $654,000 this round.

Other cities made bigger asks than they have in the past, a reflection of both their ambitions and the rising cost of construction, said Charlotte Claybrooke, active transportation programs manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation. In previous rounds, few applications topped $2 million, Claybrooke said. This year, 73 did, with three applications exceeding $10 million.

Seattle applied for nearly $13 million in grants, including for a shared-use path near Northeast 130th Street, in preparation for a coming light-rail stop.

In the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers set aside nearly $1.3 billion over 16 years for “active transportation,” geared toward walkers, bikers and children on their way to school. Of that, $568 million was earmarked for two grants — for routes to school, and bike and pedestrian projects.

Yet because of the gush of interest in newly available dollars, the state will only fund about a quarter of what local governments have asked for this year.

“It’s like a big money grab right now,” said Jeff Burkett, city supervisor of Moxee, outside of Yakima.

Appealing to small towns

A patch of sidewalk is missing on 80th Avenue Northwest in Stanwood, between town and a residential area to the north. The stretch is on a curve where people drive quickly, which means residents avoid it altogether, said Shawn Smith, Stanwood’s city administrator.

Filling the gap has been on Stanwood’s to-do list for years now, but the city has neither dedicated funding for street projects nor a significant sales tax base, which leaves town officials choosing between parks and sidewalks.

Despite that, Smith said Stanwood hadn’t bothered to seek grant funding until this year.

“We really have just one person that does that kind of work here and he also manages all of our capital project construction and design activities,” he said. “Grant applications are time consuming, and searching for potential applications to apply to is also time consuming.”

In recent years, the state acknowledged it wasn’t reaching all the places it wanted to with its grant programs, for exactly the reasons Smith laid out: The math didn’t pencil out for areas in the state without dedicated staff for seeking grants.

This round, the state changed its criteria to make the grants more appealing to small towns. There’s less of an emphasis on projects being “shovel ready,” said Claybrooke with WSDOT. More than that, the state has promised it would compare similarly sized jurisdictions to each other.

“If you’re Wapato, Washington, and you’re being compared to the city of Seattle, it seems less likely that you would get funding,” said Claybrooke. “But if you’re being compared to other cities of the same size, it’s less of an issue.”

The increase in available funds comes largely as a result of Washington Democrats’ nearly $17 billion, 16-year transportation package, passed last session mostly along party lines. While large portions will still go toward highways, it also contained an unprecedented amount of money for noncar modes of travel, including transit and walking and biking.

With the larger budget, the state took its message on the road, said Claybrooke, offering webinars and conducting more outreach to cities and counties.

“We were able to indicate that we were expecting more funds than we’ve ever had before,” she said.

Culp, of Winthrop, attended one of the webinars and it was then that she began considering applying for a grant. Winthrop hopes to connect its main drag to a parking lot to the south, over a pedestrian bridge that spans the Methow River. But a stretch of sidewalk is missing, meaning pedestrians now walk in the road.

In the past, the state wanted a crash history, which was hard to provide. “We don’t have bad, horrible stats,” said Culp. “We just have accidents we know are waiting to happen.”

Rising costs

In addition to more applications, officials are asking for more money, said Claybrooke — Spokane asked for nearly $13 million for its Fish Lake Trail project; Sumner asked for nearly $11 million for a pedestrian bridge over Highway 410.

“That is a reflection, I think, of the fact that we have more money and that the cost of doing business has gone up a lot,” she said.

Smith, of Stanwood, estimates the cost of all its projects have gone up 10%-20%. The city is growing rapidly and with each new person, the urgency to update people-focused infrastructure grows. It all adds urgency to their quest for state funding.

“We have a long list of projects that need to be done now and in the future,” he said. “So then it just becomes a choice of, if we don’t get it, do we put this off to build something else?”

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