Washington state passes bridge access law

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Paddlers in the Northwest could benefit from a bill Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed last week that requires the state Department of Transportation to consider access to the water when building or refurbishing bridges.

Senate Bill 6363 hopes to improve public access at bridge rights-of-way by requiring the state to include a formal evaluation of opportunities for water access within the public right-of-way on future bridge projects.

“When a bridge is constructed, it represents an important opportunity to evaluate how the public is using the site for river access and identify opportunities to both improve public safety and enhance the quality of the user experience,” Thomas O’Keefe, of American Whitewater, said in a statement.

The bill was introduced in the fall of 2014 after a recommendation from the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force to address access to recreational opportunities. Based on a similar provision in the California State Highway Code, the bill passed the full Senate on March 5, 2015.

However, because of problems with the language of the bill, the measure failed to make it out of the Rules Committee when time ran out in the 2015 legislative session.

On Jan. 8, the bill was reintroduced by American Whitewater and the Northwest Marine Trade Association. With revised language approved by the House Transportation Committee and the state Department of Transportation, the Senate approved the bill on Feb. 17 by a unanimous 49-0 and the House passed it in a 58-39 vote on March 3.

"This is a big deal for our friends in the paddling community," said Peter Schrappen, the Northwest Marine Trade Association's vice president, who was the lead on the bill. "Unfortunately, our state's department of transportation has periodically built bridges and wiped out access to the water. An example of this occurred on Highway 2 over the Wenatchee River. While this doesn't always happen, this bill provides a safeguard for us."

In Washington state, about 11 percent of the state’s population participates in non-motorized boating. The number grows every year, and bridge construction represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to include access to the water in its design.

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