Just Transition in Transportation

Abby Griffith waits for her C-Tran bus at the Vancouver transit center, August 2021.

Highway Pollution Calculator

As part of our Just Transition in Transportation advocacy, you can use the new Highway Pollution Calculator to estimate the increased traffic and pollution that will result from proposed highway expansions in Washington.

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New Volunteer Orientation, Wed, Dec 8, 5:30 – 6:30 pm (virtual)

Learn about our coalition, our local neighborhood groups, and best practices for being an effective advocate in your community.


Transportation Workshops Hosted by Front and Centered

  • Thursday, December 9, 2021, 6pm
    Intro to Just Transition in Transportation
    Thursday – Register here
  • Thursday, December 16, 2021, 12pm
    Advocating for a Just Transition in the 2022 Legislative Session – Register here
  • Friday, December 17, 2021, 12pm (in Spanish)
    Intro to Just Transition in Transportation – Register here


Just Transition in Transportation

Authored by Front & Centered, together with Disability Rights Washington’s Disability Mobility Initiative and 350 Washington

This June, a heatwave that scientists say would not have been possible without climate change killed more than 1200 people in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. The disaster, to cop a phrase from Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us, hurt Black, Brown, and poor people first and worst, in whose neighborhoods the highest temperatures were recorded — but everyone paid a price.

In our state, nearly half of our greenhouse gas emissions come from cars and trucks, and no surprise, we also have among the highest asthma rates in the nation. Meanwhile, state transportation funding does not provide mobility for all — 25% of the state’s population have no driver’s license, yet only 4% of the state’s transportation budget goes for transit, bike and pedestrian investments.

Our Priorities are Out of Whack

Washington Post: Washington State 4th Highest Spender on Road Expansion

“The Post’s analysis shows the state the eighth worst in the country for its share of roads in poor condition, at 27 percent. At the same time, more than three-fourths of the state’s spending on roads went toward expansion — fourth highest in the nation.” 

If we keep going this way, widening highways and roads while neglecting transit and sidewalks, we will lock in emissions for decades to come and lock many people out of opportunities to thrive.

That’s why we are calling on legislators to join us to create a Just Transition away from fossil fuels and transform transportation in Washington from a dirty engine of inequality to a catalyst for clean jobs and opportunity. Last year when Front and Centered asked our members for their transportation priorities, communities of color across the state could not be more clear: Better public transit, cleaner air, and safer streets.

The Yakima Asian Pacific Islander Coalition along with other Front and Centered members, Disability Rights Washington, and 350 Washington have worked to develop a Transportation Bill of Rights that puts people at the center of our decisions.

Rosalinda Guillen is a 70-year-old Skagit Valley farmworker and community leader coordinating with Front and Centered. She hopes the tool will help lawmakers understand the health impacts on low-income communities that live near highways, such as farmworkers in and around Mt. Vernon, Washington.

“Don’t think just about moving cars around, and moving more cars to destinations,” she said. “For us, the place where you’re building the road is our destination. That is our home, that is our recreational area, it’s our workspace, because we’re outdoor workers. You are poisoning our space.” 

Transportation Bill of Rights

People’s needs too often get left out of the planning, funding, construction, and maintenance of transportation systems. This is why we have worked together to create a Transportation Bill of Rights. Regardless of our race, age, gender, disability, income and where we live we all deserve transportation where:

  1. No one dies or is seriously injured traveling on state roads, streets, and sidewalks
  2. Every household can access groceries within 20 minutes without a car
  3. No one today is harmed by pollution or noise from transportation
  4. Protection from the climate crisis today for future generations
  5. All trips less than one mile are easily and enjoyably achieved by non-vehicle travel including for people with disabilities
  6. No household should spend more than 45% of its income on housing, transportation, and energy
  7. Every child who wants to can bike, walk, or roll safely to school
  8. Transit service is frequent and spans the day and night so people can get to work and come back
  9. The pursuit of happiness does not require a car

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What a Just Transition for Transportation Means

The Just Transition framework helps us take concrete steps to stop the extractive and unjust systems that lead to the climate crisis and systemic racism. Once we stop the bad, the Just Transition helps us build new and generative systems based on justice. See our report, Accelerating a Just Transition in Washington State: Climate Justice Strategies from the Frontlines.

The first step in the Just Transition is to divest from the dirty and racist legacies that keep us hooked on oil. In transportation, that means stop expanding highways and widening roads. Just like pipelines, these are part of an infrastructure that feeds our addiction to gas and diesel.

In a word, no.

No one likes to be stuck in traffic. The construction and oil industry have for years used congestion to justify endless highway expansions. But the jig is up. Research from our partners at the Rocky Mountain Institute and others shows that expanding highways relieves congestion for, at best, a couple of years before gridlock comes right back and increases pollution for generations. How can this be?

Watch this two-minute animation to learn more:

No argument there. Except we need clean jobs and fair jobs NOT dirty jobs that hurt our health and safety. Here too, the line we’ve been fed is just plain wrong. Public transit, bike and pedestrian projects create 31, 46, and 22 percent MORE jobs per dollar than building new roads. These contracts are also more likely to go to smaller, women and minority-owned businesses that may lack the expensive machinery — and political connections — to land highway megaprojects. Expanded public transportation means more jobs, in perpetuity (not just for construction), for bus drivers, train operators, and maintenance workers.

In fact, the Business as Usual that the legislature is proposing to continue starves rural communities of needed investments. People who live in rural areas are less likely to own cars and much more likely to be injured or die in crashes. National policy research group Transportation for America writes that “Current policy incentivizes new highway investments that draw development away from small town centers, instead of prioritizing the repair of road and bridge connections that small town residents need.” Read their six recommendations for rural transportation policy that works.

Yes, they are! And the current transportation programs have completely failed at fixing them. Despite talking a big game on ‘maintenance and preservation,’ our legislators have not put our money where their mouths are. Instead, they have pushed for massive and unneeded projects like the US 2 Trestle Bridge that WSDOT itself says will make traffic congestion worse and cost nearly $2B.

Our sidewalks are also crumbling. Cracks and bumps create a tripping hazard for everyone, in particular seniors, and can force wheelchair users and people with walkers or strollers into the roadway with cars. And instead of creating equitable systems to ensure our sidewalks are repaired and maintained, our current system that holds property owners responsible is both regressive and failing. We need public snow clearing, maintenance and repair of our sidewalks, trails and bike paths to ensure everyone can access our communities.

How to Build the New: Start with HEAL and End with Justice

Last year, the legislature passed a historic piece of environmental legislation called the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act which, among lots of other good things, requires state agencies to dramatically increase their outreach to communities that bear the brunt of pollution and climate impacts.

Unfortunately, the legislature itself is doing the opposite. Rather than listening to constituents who will be most impacted by these massive transportation projects, legislators are meeting behind closed doors with little public input in a process.

Clearly, that has to stop.

This June’s heat dome should be a moment of reckoning. In this legislative session, we should adopt a Transportation Bill of Rights and do no harm. Then let’s work together to accelerate these simple priorities that will make a difference:

  • Start with the communities facing the greatest environmental health risks.
  • Halt road and bridge expansion; we can’t build our way out of gridlock, so let’s be responsible with our funds and focus exclusively on maintenance. Fix-it-first!
  • Establish sustainable, progressive funding for electric public transportation that reaches every neighborhood and community in our state. Authorize more local revenue options so local governments can better address the transportation needs of their communities.
  • Fund transit operations to run every 15 minutes at least and seven days a week into the night also.
  • Build affordable housing near frequent, electrified public transportation; implement zoning and tax incentives.
  • Make sure there is a radius of one mile around every bus stop with accessible sidewalks, trails, and bike lanes.
  • Build safe, kid-friendly, bike and roll paths in a three-mile radius around every public school.
  • Fund multi-use trails, with transit access, that connect communities, including tribal and rural communities throughout Washington
  • Fund regular public maintenance of sidewalks and paths to repair cracks and remove debris and snow/ice.
  • Reduce/eliminate the role of armed police in traffic and transit fare enforcement
  • Zero-fare public transportation creates operating efficiencies and greater equity by speeding up boarding, eliminating enforcement disparities and reducing the criminalization of poverty.

KEY INVESTMENTS for a Just Transition in the transportation system that lower climate and air pollution and increase mobility for all:

  1. Expand Public Transportation Service: the Washington State Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) has identified needs of $40.8 billion:1
    • Transit service – $24 billion
    • Transit capital – $11.2 billion
    • Transit affordability – $5.6 billion
  2. Build out our Active Transportation System: the WA JTC has identified needs of $13.5 billion.2

    We suggest the following priorities:
    • Fully fund the WSDOT Active Transportation Plan – $5.7 billion.
    • Increase the size of the bike/ped and Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) grant programs, so they more closely match the demand (WSDOT received $200 million worth of project grant applications this biennium) – $1.6 million.
    • Establish a grant program specifically directed towards funding ADA compliance projects in local or tribal jurisdictions – $2 billion.
    • Fund a Joint Transportation Committee study that would create statewide analysis of unmet ADA compliance on our state and local right of ways, based on the ADA transition plans being submitted by October 2021 to WSDOT – $250,000.
  3. Address the Safety, Climate & Health Impacts of our Transportation System:
    • All streets must be Complete Streets. When spending funds on new or existing roads and bridges, WSDOT, the Transportation Improvement Board, and the County Road Administration Board must fund sidewalks and bike lanes, and require local jurisdictions receiving funding to do so as well. ADA requirements for accessibility are required for new projects and upgrades to existing infrastructure. Separated trail systems are often preferred in rural areas.
    • Create a Climate and Safety Scorecard for all new road & bridge projects. Proposed projects must be evaluated for climate, air pollution, and safety impacts from their construction and on-going use. Accurate modeling of the impacts on users and those living adjacent to the project is essential, especially since conventional traffic modeling typically underestimates emissions generated by widening projects.
    • Create a Pollution Monitoring Network on major roads and highways, ports, rail lines, and warehouse hubs.
  4. Expand Rail: Capitalize on rail’s energy efficiency and build state-wide, electric “regional high speed rail” as defined by the Federal Railroad Administration, for both passengers and freight, to meet emissions goals by 2030 and beyond, and achieve better air quality throughout the transport and industrial corridors. Recommended expansion and planning total about – $12 billion.
    • Sound Transit: Fund the “spine” to its original endpoints in Tacoma and Everett. Fund a Service Development Plan for light rail extensions beyond the Sound Transit plan; for example, beyond Everett to Marysville or Arlington, and beyond Tacoma to Parkland or Spanaway – $500,000.
    • Amtrak: Integrate the fundamentals of the Amtrak Cascades Long Range Plan into WSDOT’s new Service Development Plan (SDP) – (already funded by the 2021 biennial transportation budget); upgrade the Amtrak Cascades according to the new SDP – approximately $10 billion – and then electrify it – approximately $2 billion. Immediately develop a comparable Service Development Plan for the East-West Corridor connecting Spokane, the inland ports and communities, and western Washington – $500,000. Fund a Service Development Plan for Auburn-Spokane Corridor – $500,000.
  5. Expand Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure: Ensure that the build out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure along all state facilities occurs within the next 20 years at a level which is adequate to support the full electrification of vehicles, including buses and trucks – $50 million.3

1 The WA JTC identified needs for 10 years, the numbers we submit are scaled up to be appropriate for a 16 year budget. https://leg.wa.gov/JTC/Documents/Studies/Statewide%20Needs%202019/StatewideTransportationNeedsFINALPhase1.pdf

3 See “Full Build-out of EV Charging in Rural areas,” by Coltura, 11/11/20

Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative for Disability Rights Washington, said the current system is a “pork model,” where legislators pick projects for their districts rather than investing in projects that make the whole state transportation system function better.

A transportation system has to work across the state,” she said. “If you have everyone competing, that’s not going to create the best system overall.” 

Advocates say lawmakers have too much power over which projects get funded and have political incentives to fund major highway expansion projects rather than expand transit services or improve pedestrian infrastructure. Featuring friction over projects, funding, regionalism, mode split, and maintenance versus new construction, the legislative ritual, akin to passing a kidney stone, played out in 2003, 2005, and 2015.” 

Virtual Community Briefing: Just Transition for Transportation

Front and Centered with Disability Rights Washington, 350 WA and others, hosted a community briefing to discuss our Transportation Bill of Rights and how you can use the new Highway Pollution Calculator to show policymakers how proposed highway projects harm communities and the climate and how we can and must do better.