This year, the Washington state legislature lasted 176 days, breaking the record for longest legislative session in the state’s history. One of most significant accomplishments by the Washington state legislature included the passage of a 16-year, $16 billion transportation revenue package. The package adds a record $235 million in direct state investments for biking, walking and Safe Routes to School, more than $80 million in federal commitments for school safety, as well as more than $100 million for complete streets projects. To learn more about this historic effort, PreventObesity.net sat down with Blake Trask, the state policy director at Washington Bikes and Lindsay Hovind, government relations director at the American Heart Association in Puget Sound.
Both the American Heart Association and Washington Bikes are active members of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition (COPC), a statewide coalition that has sought out strategic partnerships for more than eight years to advance policy and systems solutions to the obesity crisis in Washington. In 2014, COPC received support from Voices for Healthy Kids Action Center to ensure that Safe Routes to School funding remained a top priority during the six-month legislative session.
“Over the past 10 years, state and federal funding totaling $49 million has been allocated to 136 Safe Routes To School projects across Washington state. But year after year, funding requests have been well above what is available. In fact, when we took a closer look, we found that only one in four eligible grant applications were being funded. There was clearly a strong need from schools and cities in all corners of our state to get more kids biking and walking to school,” explained Hovind. “We know that when kids bike or walk to school, they get in much of their daily physical activity, they’re more eager and alert for academics and streets are ultimately safer.”
That’s when work began to create a bipartisan conversation for active transportation investments for the anticipated transportation revenue package. According to Trask, the go-to message with bike and pedestrian bills had previously been that they were good for the environment, “which is true, but we thought that distracted from a broader message that bike and walking investments improve safety, health and economic development, and provide better transportation options for every Washingtonian.” A statewide poll fielded prior to the legislative session confirmed that these ideas resonated with voters, and that 84 percent of residents supported prioritizing Safe Routes to School in state transportation spending.
The strong partnership between biking, walking and health advocates proved powerful not only in conversations with stakeholders and legislators, but also for keeping the pressure up on an important shared issue during a long and turbulent legislative session. It was ultimately a winning combination that resulted in gains for active transportation investments even beyond Safe Routes to School.
“We were able to add investments to the package that will commit over a half-billion dollars to make our streets safer, provide better options for children to bike and walk, and to give people the freedom to go where they want to go,” said Trask. “These forward-thinking investments make people of all backgrounds, ages and income-levels healthier, local economies stronger and improve safety for everyone – whether they bike, drive, walk or take transit.”
“By mid-July, Governor Inslee had signed the transportation package and we were all celebrating this fantastic win,” Trask added. “We celebrated until a few days later when we got a call.”
Trask was referring to the call where the governor indicated that he was considering accepting the so-called “poison pill” language in the transportation revenue package, which would convert roughly $2 billion for biking, walking, transit and local government investments into roads spending. Washington Bikes, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, COPC, the American Heart Association and many others immediately went to work on a second campaign to save the historic investments contained in the transportation package.
“Learning the Governor might go forward with accepting the poison pill language concerned many of us,” Trask noted. “We worked with our partners quickly behind the scenes, and within a few days pulled together a campaign plan.”
When the news came out, Washington Bikes launched an action alert to ask that the governor pull back; the American Heart Association, COPC and about 15 other organizations came out asking for the governor not to pull the funding for key investments that promote physical activity that are included in the transportation package.
“Within five days, we had editorials in two of the state’s largest newspapers, and the nightly news was reporting on what would be at stake,” Trask said. “After seven or eight days, we were gearing up for a rapid response push, but after one week we were asked to join a conference call, and on that call the governor said that he found another option for funding and that he would not be implementing this executive action.”
With the help of a large and diverse set of interests, these historic investments were protected. As Trask said, “this couldn’t have been done without bipartisan support and the coming together of like-minded advocates with different interests, but a shared passion for the same end goal. Everyone’s backs were against the wall, but everyone came together, rallied and we persevered.”