Council approves buyout of Pronto

On a 7-2 vote, the City Council voted today to acquire the remaining assets of the Pronto bikeshare system, putting it on a new path to operate — and eventually expand — managed by the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Council members Burgess and Herbold reiterated their opposition to the buyout by introducing an updated version of their amendment from the Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting two weeks ago which would forbid the buyout and hold the funds under the Council’s control until a new business plan for bikeshare is presented later this year — or if that didn’t happen would repurpose the funds for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects. In arguing for their amendment, Burgess cited the Council’s fiduciary responsibility in not throwing more money after an insolvent and poorly managed effort, as well as complaints about SDOT’s process failures in not informing the Council in a timely way when it didn’t receive the federal Tiger grant that it was depending on to fund expansion and in quietly providing additional funding to Pronto in violation of the spirit of the Council’s proviso holding back additional funds until a detailed business plan is in place. Sustainability and Transportation Committee chair O’Brien, the sponsor of the bill to enact the buyout, countered by sympathizing with the need for an appropriate response when a department (i.e. SDOT) doesn’t live up to its expectations, but emphasizing that he believes bike share is an integral part of the city’s transportation network and needs to be supported.  The amendment failed by a 2-7 vote, with Burgess and Herbold the only “aye” votes.

Three other amendments followed:

  • one (officially Amendment 5) offered by O’Brien updated the proviso to hold the remaining funds designated for expansion until SDOT demonstrated that five key bike infrastructure projects were on schedule to be completed before bike share expansion would roll out;
  • one (Amendment 7) introduced by Gonzalez requires SDOT to engage with low-income communities and communities of color to assess their desire to access a bike-share program and to identify any barriers to their access that might exist. Gonzalez forcefully made the point that while she has heard many claims that bikeshare systems benefit these traditionally underserved committees she has never seen any study, data or analysis that supports that claim.  Juarez followed that with a reminder that since the program utilizes federal funds it must comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and pointed out that her District 5 currently has no bikeshare stations under the current system. Gonzalez’s amendment passed 9-0.
  • the final amendment (officially Amendment 9) offered by O’Brien added language to highlight three different potential models that might get used for expanding the bikeshare system, and clarifies that as part of the RFP process the decision as to who the operations contract is awarded to is the Mayor’s (after consultation with the Council) and NOT SDOT’s. This is in response to several people pointing out that SDOT Director Scott Kubly  formerly worked at the company that currently operates Pronto and thus has at least a perceived conflict of interest in making financial and operational decisions about the bikeshare system. This amendment also passed 9-0.

The final, amended bill passed by a vote of 7-2, with Burgess and Herbold as the expected “no” votes. Council President Harrell expressed his thanks to Herbold and Burgess for raising their objections in the spirit of holding everyone accountable to a high standard of good governance and fiduciary responsibility. Just prior to the final vote, Johnson pointed out that we subsidize our transportation system all the time in different forms, and in fact have gone further to bail out auto and airline companies. He also added that he feels that the city’s bicycle infrastructure still has a long way to go, saying “A bike lane is only a bike lane if it’s safe for an 8 year old” and expressing his hope that he can take his own kids out on Seattle’s bike lanes in the near future.

From here, SDOT will move quickly to make some financial payments, as Pronto currently doesn’t have the cash to pay its bills at the end of this month. Once the money is squared away and the assets have been transferred, they will get to work on drafting the RFP for a new contract to operate the bikeshare system, looking at new operators, possibly new equipment, and a range of business models. They expect to come back to the Council around the end of summer with a winning proposal and a new business plan to accompany it, in order to get the Council to release the rest of the funds budgeted for system expansion.  But SDOT has also made promises about continued operational improvements to the system as it exists now, and the Council will be watching closely to see how well they deliver on those promises. O’Brien has made it clear through both his words and his amendments that he intends to keep SDOT on a short leash when it comes to taking the bike share system forward; he spent political capital to push it through today, and his reputation is now tied to the program’s success.