Pronto bikeshare: dueling amendments

The future of the Pronto bikeshare system will play out tomorrow in the Sustainability and Transportation Committee Meeting through a set of dueling amendments.

Committee chair Mike O’Brien said this morning during the weekly council briefing that he is leaning toward supporting the buyout of the existing system and running/expanding it as a publicly owned system, but is introducing three amendments to apply some terms to increase his comfort level with the proposal:

  1. The first amendment lays out the Council’s ongoing involvement in the process of deciding how an when to expand the system, including its role in both scoping the RFP that is going out to vendors in the next month and reviewing the responses to that RFP.
  2. The second amendment sets expectations for how the existing bike share system would be operated in by SDOT in 2016, including ongoing operational changes to make it a more efficient and effective system at its current size. SDOT would also be required to make monthly status updates to the Council.
  3. The third amendment would create a separate “budget control level” for the bike share system, which would cleanly separate out its revenues an expenditures from other SDOT programs so there would be a clean and transparent accounting of the program.
Council member Mike O'Brien
Council member Mike O’Brien

Council member Herbold is introducing an amendment which proposes the opposite approach, shutting down the existing program. In detail, her amendment would:

  • deny SDOT the $1.4 million they requested in order to purchase the assets of the existing system;
  • States the Council’s support for a wholly privately-owned bike share program in Seattle, along the lines of the systems in San Francisco, New York City, and Miami;
  • Authorizes $1 million to repay the federal government’s grant if the existing bike share assets can’t be transferred to another program;
  • States the Council’s intent to spend the remaining $4 million set aside in the 2016 budget to support other bicycle and pedestrian projects in the city.

Herbold also noted that Motivate, the company currently operating the Pronto system here, also runs the privately-owned San Francisco system and might have interest in bidding to set up a private system in Seattle.

Council member Lisa Herbold
Council member Lisa Herbold

None of the other Council members present (Sawant, Gonzalez, Bagshaw) hinted as to how they felt about the different approaches, so we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out tomorrow.  It should be noted, however, that there’s no reason to think that this represents any deep political or philosophical rift between Herbold and O’Brien, who generally align in their views. Herbold didn’t expand on why she thought shutting down the program was the best option, though I expect she will do so in the committee tomorrow. O’Brien, for his part, is a huge advocate for bicycling and bike infrastructure in the city, and I think he would have a difficult time voting to shut down Pronto.

UPDATE: Council member Herbold sent out a statement on her rationale for shutting down the existing program. Excerpts:

I believe bike sharing can be a productive part of Seattle’s transportation network. However, I believe we would be best served by a privately owned and operated system, in the same way as Car2Go, the successful car-sharing program, is privately owned and operated in Seattle. Cities such as New York City, San Francisco, and Miami Beach each have wholly privately-owned bike share systems.

I also believe it’s important to view this proposal in the broader context of city transportation. We asked City voters to approve a $930 million levy last year, representing roughly 25% of the SDOT budget because we can’t properly maintain and expand our current transportation infrastructure. We have an obligation to spend our
transportation funds wisely. We refer often to our regressive tax structure; don’t we have an obligation to use the funding we have to tend to the funding backlog we already have for our basic transportation infrastructure so that we don’t have to ask the voters for so much?  …

The real issue appears to be this: should the public own bike sharing? In practice, if Seattle purchases Pronto, it will become a part of our transportation network, which could result in additional ongoing costs. SDOT projects it would pay for itself, in part through sponsorships, though it’s worth noting sponsorship projections for the South Lake Union streetcar fell well below original projections and Pronto’s business model failed due to being undercapitalized and realizing less sponsorship revenue than needed; sponsorships will also likely be needed for Waterfront re-development, and any potential Center City Streetcar. It’s worth asking whether there is a limit to how much overall sponsorship funding Seattle can realistically attain.

A final note: while a publicly-owned system isn’t my preferred outcome, I recognize many do support that. However, I wonder if the legislation before us is the best deal available to Seattle for a publicly owned system. If these amendments pass, or the Council votes no on the legislation, the parties involved would face different bargaining positions: Pronto would face insolvency at the end of March, and a shutdown of operations; Key Bank would face the prospect of $1.275 million not being repaid; and Motivate could lose their potential advantage of having a system already in place during an RFP process. This could dramatically reduce the cost to the public to acquire the bankrupted company’s assets.

UPDATE 2:  Herbold’s amendment is here, and O’Brien’s amendment is here.