As the new year progresses, I’d like to take a moment to share how the County addresses sidewalks, particularly for schools, as many are concerned with recent traffic incidences. There are requirements in our codes for development, but sidewalks that enhance a school’s walkability do have a specific program just for them.
About 8 years ago, the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Plan was adopted by the County in collaboration with the school districts in unincorporated Pierce County. The SRTS Plan was developed in part to provide a foundation for future funding efforts to construct sidewalks near schools. One of the primary funding sources is the federal Safe Routes to School Program. The Safe Routes to School Program began as a federally funded reimbursement program that was established in August 2005 by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).
In essence, schools identify and prioritize sidewalk locations most important in their districts and then give that list to the Office of the County Engineer. Each list is then analyzed according to its potential for winning a grant, as all grants are highly competitive. There could be say, $400 million in requests with only $100 million available. This list of projects is included in the SRTS Plan. When funding opportunities arise, County staff coordinates with the school to review which of their requests have the best chance to get funded before making applications. The school can accept or reject the application list advised by the County staff. Our goal is to apply for those most likely to be funded based on the school’s most wanted list. Applications are time-intense, so you want to apply with the goal in mind.
There are several sources of grant funding. One is through the SRTS Program, but there are other grants for non-motorized or specialized transportation from the federal government, administered through the Puget Sound Regional Council.
Pierce County recently passed legislation that all policies be viewed through the lens of an “equity index”. When the equity note is completed sometime later this year, we should score higher on applications that require use of the index. Schools do receive impact fees from new construction. Sometimes they use those dollars to apply matching funds toward grant applications, which enhance chances of winning the grant.
The Office of the County Engineer and the Road Operations Division of the Planning and Public Works Department receive funding from the County Road Fund (CRF) to plan, improve, maintain, and operate the County transportation system. There are many projects needed with these limited funds. Major revenue sources of the CRF are dedicated property taxes and state-allocated motor vehicle fuel excise taxes. Traffic Impact Fees (TIF) cannot be used for stand-alone sidewalks.
Perhaps the most frustrating element is how long it takes to complete a project. Once a project is included in the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), it is placed on the schedule for when dollars are available to begin the processes for design, permitting, purchasing right-of-way, environmental studies, etc. Expect this process to take at least 3-4 years before completion from when the project begins the design process. In this year’s TIP adoption, three new sidewalk projects for the schools were added, of which one was in the Bethel District on B St. from 152nd St. to 156th St.
The County’s Safe Routes to School Plan is under review for an update. I expect the Council to be informed of any revisions at the end of the year, which will include priorities from the schools. We understand the importance of having sidewalks for our schools, but we are constrained under the rules made by the feds and the state, as well as our development codes. I’d much rather we invest in sidewalks where they are most needed and will be used, rather than a place where no one or few people walk. I’m working on that, but it may take an act of God to revise. For your information, Senator Jim McCune is sponsoring funding in the amount of $600,000 in order to complete the sidewalk project north of the Graham-Kapowsin High School.