Seattle’s bike share network will come under City of Seattle ownership with an eye on expansion as City Council members voted 7-2 Monday to save the indebted system.
After tacking on amendments to improve bike lane infrastructure downtown and ensure that bike sharing reaches low income neighborhoods, City Council members approved a plan for the City to takeover Pronto with a $1.4 million investment while reserving another $3.6 million for future expansion of the system next year under a new operator contract.
Council member Mike O’Brien, who ushered the buyout plan through the transportation committee last month, said the system was worth saving as thousands of riders were already relying on it as a mode of transportation.
The vote comes after months of debate on what to do with the insolvent bike share system owned by the nonprofit Puget Sound Bike Share. While the $5 million was already earmarked for Pronto last year, the systems financial shortcomings weren’t known outside the bowels of City Hall. The system would have ceased operations on March 31st without the city investment.
By spending $1.4 million, Seattle will immediately acquire 26 stations from Pronto as well as all remaining hard assets. The City already owns 28 stations after purchasing them with a federal grant. The City would also seek out a new operating contract as Pronto’s current contract with the company Motivate ends at the end of 2016. Motivate could still submit a bid to continue running the service.
Council’s Tim Burgess, who voted against O’Brien’s plan, said the council would be failing taxpayers by taking over an insolvent system. “This is what economists call optimism bias,” he said. Council members shot down a Burgess amendment that would have prevented the buyout, closed Pronto, and reserved funds for a new system.
The council also passed an amendment to ensure that it retain the final say in approving a new bike share operator contract. The amendment from O’Brien was an attempt to address concerns that SDOT director Scott Kubly would have a conflict of interest in selecting a bike share operator due to his previous job running the predecessor of PSBS.
Negotiating new sponsorship deals would be key to expanding and sustaining the system in the future, according SDOT’s head of active transportation Nicole Freedman. SDOT projects it could get roughly $1,200 per new bike in advertising, which would put the system on track to being financially sustainable. Acquiring the system without expanding it would cost the City roughly $110,000 a year after 2016. Re-locating existing stations could also give Pronto a boost after the City takes over, according to SDOT.
Late last year, CHS reported on the City’s plans to take over Pronto to stabilize an underused system, expand it to more of the city, and transform the fleet into a new generation of electric bikes. SDOT officials believe an all-electric bike system can be a game changer in terms of boosting ridership and would allow more riders to make the longer trips required through less dense areas. The overhauled bike share could also include point to point or floating elements added to the network to help create a more flexible system.
Details then emerged of the system’s financial failures. Above average costs due to Seattle’s third-party system combined with insufficient funds raised at the launch of the service put Pronto $1.2 million in debt, according to SDOT.
In a poll of CHS readers, while the vast majority of all respondents ranked the Herbold plan to snuff Pronto as their top choice, among bike share riders, the “Kubly solution” of acquiring the bike share ranked highest.