After a lengthy city council discussion, we still have no answer on the question of whether the city will bail out Pronto, Seattle's insolvent bike share service.
In the council's transportation committee this afternoon, council members presented competing proposals, ranging from buying the system to letting it die in hopes a private company would operate bike share in Seattle instead. In the end, they split, voting
3-3 4-2 on a plan to buy the system. [UPDATE: While the council's transportation committee chair Mike O'Brien said at the meeting that the vote split 3-3, Council Member Debora Juarez said afterward that she actually voted in favor of city buying the program, according to council staff. That means the vote was 4-2, not 3-3.]
The buyout plan, introduced by Council Member Mike O'Brien, will head to a full council vote on March 14. Between now and then, council members will try to rally their colleagues to their side of the issue.
To recap: Last year, the city set aside $5 million for expanding Pronto, but that money had a proviso on it. It wouldn't be spent until the bike share operators came back to the council with a specific plan. Then, in late January, it became clear that Pronto was in trouble. Instead of expanding the program, the Seattle Department of Transportation asked the council to use $1.4 million of that money to buy Pronto. The decision of whether to give SDOT that cash has prompted the larger question: Should the city take over bike share or let it die? Most council members say they like bike share, but they're split on whether they'd rather see it operated by a private company or by the city.
To that end, Council Member Lisa Herbold pitched a plan to use about $1 million of the money to pay back federal grants given to Pronto and then use the remaining $4 million on other bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Council Member Tim Burgess had a similar pitch, but the $4 million remaining would have gone to a private bike-share company "that does not rely on City of Seattle funding for operating revenue."
The basic fight here was about whether the risk assumed by the city if it takes over Pronto is worth the public good. Both Herbold and Burgess are more comfortable with a private company taking on the financial risks of running bike share.
Council Members O'Brien, Rob Johnson, and Kshama Sawant, meanwhile, argued that a public system would better address equity needs (by placing stations in poor neighborhoods and offering discounted memberships, for example).
"When I look at privately owned systems, it does not result in the equitable outcomes we'd be able to ask [of a publicly funded system]," Johnson said.
Herbold turned the equity concerns around. "We have a lot of equity needs with our current transportation infrastructure," she said.
Both Herbold's and Burgess's proposals failed in committee today, but Burgess's may get a second life. Debora Juarez supported his idea (though she later voted for the city buyout) and Herbold abstained from voting on it. If he wins support from Herbold and Juarez in the next two weeks, that's three for his plan and three for O'Brien's buyout plan. The council members who weren't at today's meeting—Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, and Lorena González—are unpredictable on this issue.
That underscores one interesting thing we learned today: This new council's voting blocs may be less predictable that the last city council. Sawant and Herbold, considered allies, split on this. The populist Sawant found herself on the same side as Johnson, who faced criticism during the campaign because he won support from business and restaurant interests. We'll learn more when the issue comes back on March 14.
Finally, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't tell about one mostly irrelevant but totally idiotic thing that happened at today's meeting. As SDOT's Nicole Freedman was explaining to the city council the risks of private operation of a bike share system, she mentioned that in Miami Beach, a Playboy Playmate was a spokesperson for bike share. Her message: You're not in control! Anything could happen!
That's a total nonsense argument for all sorts of reasons (starting with: let's not slut-shame people). It also doesn't look so bad:
This post has been corrected to reflect that, despite the committee's initial report of a 3-3 vote, Council Member Debora Juarez now says she voted in favor of a city buyout of the program, resulting in a 4-2 vote.