Council deeply divided on Pronto

As advertised, the Sustainability and Transportation Committee had a long discussion on whether to bail out the ailing Pronto bikeshare system, with a deep division emerging and in the end no consensus.

Six Council members were in attendance: committee chair O’Brien, plus Council members Johnson, Sawant, Herbold, Burgess and Juarez.

Before the Council members started their debate, there was a presentation from Scott Kubly and Nicole Friedman of SDOT, following up on questions from last time. One point that they hammered on — knowing what was coming — was the question of public vs. private ownership. Private ownership means that the city is not taking on the financial risk of the system; but on the other hand, public ownership allows for equity issues to be prioritized higher. The equity issues are a matter of great importance to the Council members, as they wish to ensure that a bikeshare system provides coverage in low-income areas of the city that might not be profitable extensions to the system.

Herbold introduced an amendment as promised, which would essentially reverse the intent f the underlying bill: it would deny the purchase of Pronto’s assets, repay the federal grant, and assert the Council’s intent to seek a privately-owned bikeshare system. She spoke at length about her reasons for doing so: “For me, this brings up questions as to whether this is a priority for finite dollars… we would be best served by a system that does not require city dollars.” She went on further to make a larger point about how decisions get made to start new efforts like the bike share system: “I think we are doing this backwards. We should be asking the voters if they want to fund the experiments, and the Council should be really focused on the priorities of budgeting our existing infrastructure.”

Council members Sawant, Johnson and O’Brien each spoke against the amendment; Johnson and Sawant to argue that a private system would not allow the city to reach its equity goals, and O’Brien to emphasize that the difference in cost between shutting the system down and buying and continuing it is modest enough that he believed they should keep it running. Sawant added some “big picture” comments about how a city of Seattle’s size needs a transit system that includes both arterials and feeders, and she sees bikeshare as an important potential feeder system.

Herbold’s amendment failed in a 1-5 vote; she was the only supporter.

Next up was Burgess, who introduced his own amendment that had much in common with Herbold’s. HIs also denied the purchase of the Pronto assets, but he wanted to see a system where the financial risk associated with the operation of the system was shifted from the city to the private operator. Capital costs for equipment would be shared between the city and the operator in his model.

Burgess had some pointed questions for the SDOT staff on why they had put off the conversation about Pronto’s impending insolvency when they knew last May it was inevitable, and further why they spent $305,000 to keep it afloat. SDOT Director Scott Kubly explained that between May and January they had extensive conversations with their current contracted operator, Motivate, about extending their contract, but the city would have lost pricing control and the ability to reach equity goals; further, that was when the city had an application in for a federal grant and didn’t want to risk the appearance of instability by changing operators during that time. So instead they quietly kept things afloat. But when pressed by Burgess and O’Brien, Kubly did admit in hindsight that he should have begun the conversation with the Council last summer. All this feeds into Burgess’s dislike of both the process that the city and the Council have been through with this, and that the city is being asked to share the financial risk. Burgess summed up by stating, “We’ll be asked this summer to invest more, and we can’t predict today what amount that will be. That’s why I want to stop investing money in this.”

Juarez voiced her support for Burgess’s amendment, explaining “When you’re in a hole, you quit digging.” She reiterated her support for bikeshare, and noted that the real question is not whether to do it, but how. Herbold chose to abstain until she could learn more about Burgess’s ideas for how to limit the city’s financial exposure.

Burgess’s amendment also failed, by a vote of 2-3; Burgess and Juarez were the two “yes” votes.

Finally came O’Brien’s amendment which didn’t change the basic underlying support in the bill for buying out Pronto’s assets and keeping the system afloat under city control. His amendment required Council involvement in writing the RFP and reviewing the responses, separating out the accounting into a separate fund, and specifying the terms under which the remaining $3.6 million would be released to fund further expansion.

O’Brien’s amendment passed unanimously, which led to consideration of the full, amended bill to move forward with purchasing the Pronto assets.

Johnson spoke strongly in favor of this: “We have public subsidies for every form of transportation out there. Transportation is a public good and therefore has public subsidies associated with it.”

The vote (to recommend to bill to the full Council for passage) was a 3-3 tie; Sawant, Johnson and O’Brien voted for it, and Burgess, Herbold and Juarez voted against. What that means, according to the Council processes, is that the bill moves to the full Council without a recommendation, but with a “divided report.” In these cases, the bill must wait an extra week before coming before the full Council, so it will be considered on March 14th.

As a side note, last December the Council changed its rules so that Council members are required to write the divided report themselves instead of having it written by the Council’s central staff; this will be the first divided report under the new rules, and it led to some good-natured grumbling by Council members as they wrapped up the meeting.

At this point, it’s entirely unclear how the full Council will vote on March 14th; or more to the point, how Council members Gonzalez, Bagshaw and Harrell will vote. Today’s discussion was not heated, and there is broad consensus among the Council members that bikeshare is a good thing, an important component of the city’s comprehensive transportation system, and something that the city should create. The question, as Juarez put it, is how.  Burgess will undoubtedly spend the next two weeks trying to build support for his approach; Herbold already seems open to it, which puts him at three of the necessary five votes to push it through. O’Brien, likewise, is at three of five.

The vote is also an interesting eye toward factions (or lack thereof) in the Council; the fact that Herbold and Juarez, who both are strong on equity issues, are siding with Burgess and not their natural allies Sawant and O’Brien, is a fascinating twist. Bagshaw and Harrell often also side with Burgess on “good governance” issues when he raises them, but Bagshaw is a big bicycle advocate and Harrell cares about equity issues. And Gonzalez has not staked out any positions that would predict how she will vote on this. But I suppose it’s a good sign at this point that there are no personal loyalties so far in the new Council that are trumping consideration of the issues at hand.