by Guy Oron
On Tuesday, March 9, a coalition of disability justice and environmental justice groups launched a campaign for more investment in sidewalks and public transportation across Washington State. The campaign, spearheaded by the nonprofit advocacy organizations Disability Rights Washington and Front and Centered, held a press conference in Tacoma on Tuesday.
To draw attention to the need for better pedestrian infrastructure, the press conference was held at the No. 53 bus stop across the street from the apartment of Krystal Monteros, who is the vice-chair of the Tacoma Area Commission on Disabilities. Portions of the street have no sidewalk but instead are lined with gravel pathways.
Monteros, who is a wheelchair user, says that the lack of accessible infrastructure, such as sidewalks, makes it harder for her to be mobile and independent. This issue is especially important during inclement weather. “When it’s snowing outside, I literally have to have my neighbors come and help me get through this area that there’s no sidewalk in,” Monteros said. “I can’t do it independently, even though I live independently on my own.”
The lack of accessible sidewalks and transportation also made finding accessible housing more challenging for Monteros. “It gets so hard sometimes because there’s so many apartment complexes where they have accessible units where the bathroom is perfectly fine, the bedrooms are perfectly fine,” said Monteros. “But the thing is, whether it’s hills or whether it’s like the gravel like this or no curb cuts — those are the things that are blocking me from actually getting to those accessible units. But if those things were just changed, then my life would be so much easier and there would be way more options available to me within my price range.”
Monteros is part of a larger project by Disability Rights Washington to collect stories of people who either don’t or can’t drive from across the state. The organization says that one in four Washington residents don’t drive, yet their voices are often not heard by policy makers.
According to Anna Zivarts, project lead at Disability Rights Washington, two main themes emerged from the storytelling project. “First is that we need reliable and accessible public transit all throughout our state,” said Zivarts. “And the second theme is we need the sidewalks to get there. We need to be able to access public transit.”
Despite demand for more infrastructure such as sidewalks, road crossings, and bike lanes, pedestrian safety remains underfunded in Washington. According to the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), funding requests for safe routes to schools as well as other pedestrian and bicyclist safety improvements “have consistently exceeded funding amounts provided.” Between 2019 and 2021, only about 20% of these requested projects received funding.
One reason why transportation and safety projects go underfunded could be because the majority of WSDOT’s $4.75 billion biennial capital budget goes to highway improvements. In the 2019–2021 budget, 62.7% of WSDOT’s expenditures went to new highway improvements. In contrast, new local safety improvements and rail projects received only 7% and 2.2% of the budget.
These one-sided funding priorities are in part due to the nature of Washington’s regressive tax structure. According to Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered, laws such as the 18th Amendment to the Washington State constitution have caused a backlog in safety and accessibility infrastructure. The amendment, which Nunes-Ueno called a “Jim Crow era law,” was passed in 1944 to ensure that gas tax revenues can only go towards funding highway and road improvements and maintenance. While in 2012 the Supreme Court reinterpreted the amendment more broadly to allow for revenue to go to other spending, some advocates would like to see a shift towards less regressive funding sources.
The prioritization of funding for highways and roads over public transportation affects Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities disproportionately. In Seattle, Black drivers account for about 40% of all charges of driving with a suspended license despite making up less than 10% of the population. BIPOC communities are also the most likely to face displacement and gentrification, as has happened in neighborhoods such as Columbia City which have received new light rail infrastructure. These combined mobility justice issues impact BIPOC disabled people — who face both racism and ableism — the most.
The lack of safety infrastructure still affects many parts of Seattle, including the South End. According to Crosscut., over a quarter of city streets, which is about 45,000 blocks, don’t have sidewalks. This includes northern and southern edges of Seattle, which were incorporated in the mid-20th century.
This lack of investment is especially pronounced along Rainier Avenue South. The Seattle Times reports that 15 serious traffic accidents occurred on Rainier Avenue in 2020 alone. As part of a mission to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2030, Seattle lowered the speed limit of most arterials, including Rainier Avenue, to 25 miles per hour in order to reduce traffic fatalities and accidents.
Organizers of the campaign are hoping they can persuade Washington State policymakers to shift WSDOT priorities. “We are calling on our legislature to invest in public transit service and to invest in sidewalks and accessible crossings so we can all go where we need to go in our communities to participate and to be part of our communities,” said Zivarts.
Guy Oron is a Seattle-based writer and journalist. His writing has been featured in the Nation, South Seattle Emerald, Seattle Globalist, and the UW Daily.
Featured Image: Supporters of an effort to use Washington gas tax funds for sidewalks and transit over highways recently held a press conference at an inaccessible bus stop in Tacoma. Photo courtesy of Disability Rights Washington.
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