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Olympia No Longer Spinning Wheels on Bike Legislation

Four bills supporting safety and transportation issues headed to floor votes.

As the Washington State Legislature enters its final few weeks, some significant bicycling legislation is still alive and seems to be heading for the governor’s pen. It’s a combination of repeated attempts at passage for a couple of the bills, broad support for ones that are less controversial, and an all-important lack of budget requests.

The four issues that have made it to the final stages of reconciliation and floor votes are:

  • Traffic school safety education
  • Complete Streets grant-making mechanism
  • Transportation project design amendments
  • Vulnerable users bill

One bill, which sought authority for local authorities to impose a 20-mile-per-hour speed limit on non-arterial roads in cities in towns, died in committee.

Traffic school
The Traffic School Safety Education Bill, HB 1129, was proposed by the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (BAW). It was not controversial and enjoyed broad support by lawmakers, and by the end of March it was awaiting Gov. Christine Gregoire’s signature.

It’s an extension of a law passed in 2008 that “requires all driver’s education schools, both public and private, to teach a curriculum about bicycles in traffic,” says Dave Janis of the BAW. “This takes it to the traffic schools,” those court-mandated refresher courses for drivers who commit serious offenses.

A typical traffic school class lasts eight hours, and the bike awareness section would take up no more than one half-hour. The BAW will provide the curriculum and materials free to the schools.

Complete Streets
“Complete Streets” is a transportation design concept that says a street should be designed, built or renovated for all users: private vehicles, public transit, bicycles and pedestrian traffic. That means including bike lanes and sidewalks, something that road designers have not always done. Some communities in the state have implemented Complete Streets into their transportation planning.

The current bill, SHB 1071, “would create a grant program so that local jurisdictions that pass a Complete Streets ordinance can then apply for money to implement the ordinance,” says Janis. The bill does not have any appropriations attached to it, but “essentially puts a placeholder in the budget” to allow for future funding when the state’s finances improve, he says.

Roadway design standards
Broadening the scope of resources that could be used in designing transportation projects is the goal of HB 1700. It would “give jurisdictions some guidelines they could use in Complete Streets projects,” explains Janis.

Currently, “local design manuals are out of date and inflexible,” says David Hiller of the Cascade Bicycle Club. This causes communities to “have a very limited palette of options for making cycling better.” The new rules would also give communities more confidence that they wouldn’t be sued over making changes that are not in the state highway design manual or local agency guide, he says.

At the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., recently, the National Association of City Transportation Officials unveiled its Urban Bikeway Design Guide that lays out choices for cities wanting to improve bicycle transportation in places where there are competing demands. Hopefully HB 1700 would encourage use of such up-to-date resources.  

Vulnerable Users
The biggest change to state laws would come from the “Vulnerable Users” bill, SB 5326, which is also in the final stages of debate in the legislature. This is the third version of the bill to be proposed in as many years, and it stands a great chance of being passed into law, says Hiller. Cascade Bicycle Club has been the lead organization proposing and advocating for the bill.

Hiller says the “concept has been refined enough and legislators have heard enough from their constituents” over the past two years for support to reach a tipping point.

The bill would mandate stiff fines, loss of license or other penalties for negligent motorists who cause a death or serious injury to a “vulnerable user” (bicyclist, pedestrian, disabled person or motorcyclist) if a collision happens in the course of committing another infraction.

“The real crux of this bill is that outcomes matter,” says Hiller. “A DUI with a death is not a DUI with a tragic outcome; it’s vehicular manslaughter. If you have an unsecured load in your vehicle, it’s simply an infraction, but if you kill someone, it’s a felony.”

Possible fines would range from $1,000 to $5,000, and drivers charged under the bill would lose their licenses for 90 days. A driver could reduce the fine to $250 by showing up in court, completing a traffic safety course, and doing 100 hours of community service.

“It will hopefully encourage people to behave more responsibly around populations that are defined as vulnerable,” Hiller says, although “we’ll have to watch it closely to see if it has its desired effect."

Hiller says that fighting for this bill has been an emotional experience, working with families of crash victims who have shown “courage and strength” to speak out in support of the law. “On memorial rides, we’ve seen these people, shared their stories, and they’ve really looked to us and put their faith in us.”

Passage would be “a relief,” he says, and also a milestone. “There’s only one similar law in the country, and we don’t think it’s as good as ours, and that is in Oregon.”

Funding Seems Secure
Most of the bills require very little cost to the state, a good thing in times of extreme budget deficits. The Vulnerable Users bill carries an estimated cost of $48,000 for implementation over two years, which Hiller says is known as “decimal dust” in the Olympia budgeting world.

Other bike and pedestrian programs take more money, but funding for two popular programs seemingly will be spared the budget axe. There is $11 million budgeted for the Safe Routes to School and Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety programs, both administered by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Paula Reeves, manager of the Community Design Office in WSDOT’s Highways and Local Programs Division, says, “our funding hasn’t been reduced, but we’re not able to address the safety needs with what we have at this point.”

She explains that schools present proposed projects, which are granted funds for construction through the programs. But “demand for the program far exceeds our amount of funding,” she says. “We have received nine times more in grant requests than we have in available funding.”

Statistics show the need to give this problem more attention: annually, there are more than 400 fatal or seriously disabling crashes involving bikes or pedestrians.

Take Action
If you want to support any of this legislation, call your legislator in Olympia and voice your opinion. BAW’s Janis says you should state your personal interest in a few short sentences as well as urge a positive vote.

Track the status of bills on the Bicycle Alliance legislative page or Cascade Bicycle Club’s blog. Contact state legislators through the Find Your Legislator tool.

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