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Alta Bicycle Share wins Chicago contract; responds to questions about selection process

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on March 19th, 2012 at 11:16 am

Headlines in Chicago not what
Alta was hoping for.

Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share chalked up another huge victory last week when they were chosen by the City of Chicago to develop their $21 milllion bike sharing system. Alta already runs the highly successful Capital Bikeshare system and they were chosen last fall to implement New York's City's system, which will be the largest in the U.S..

While this should be a time of celebration over at Alta headquarters in Portland's central eastside, the company is being forced to answer questions about the Chicago contract because a competitor who lost out on the bid is alleging that Alta used its high-level city relationships to unfair advantage in the selection process. Here's more from the Chicago Sun-Times:

Josh Squire, owner of Bike Chicago, charged that Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein “tainted the process” by failing to disclose his prior relationship with winning bidder Alta Bicycle Share and did not really recuse himself from the selection process as he claimed to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Sun-Times story details several other allegations being made by Squire and reports that he plans to file a formal complaint (there's also some coverage on the Grid Chicago blog).

Alta Bicycle Share is a subsidiary of Alta Planning + Design, an engineering consultancy whose president, Mia Birk, is the former bike program manager for the City of Portland. Birk, who's also a principal of Alta Bicycle Share, responded to Squire's allegations over the weekend. She says there's no substance behind Squire's allegations whatsoever.

DSC_3484-1
Mia Birk
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

In a statement to BikePortland, Birk wrote that her company won the bid "fair and square":

Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. competed fair and square in a highly competitive process. We are honored to have been selected based on our qualifications and experience launching and operating bike share systems in Melbourne, Arlington VA, Washington, DC, and Boston. At this time, we are focused on contract negotiations and launch preparation to bring Chicago a world-class bike share system in support of the City's goals.

The Chicago news came on the same day the City of Portland gave the official green light to move forward with a search for its bike share operator.

Given Alta Bicycle Share's dominance in the U.S. bike share industry and their local knowledge here in Portland, they are clearly positioned to be very competitive to win the just-released PBOT bike share contract.

Alta has worked on countless transportation contracts for PBOT and the two organizations have shared a number of employees over the years. Given these close ties and the allegations being made in Chicago, we can expect serious scrutiny by the local media on PBOT's bike share selection process.

Back in July 2010, after Alta won a $200,000 PBOT contract to develop new bikeways in north and northeast Portland, Beth Slovic — formerly of The Willamette Week and now working for The Oregonian — alleged that the contract came only because of Birk's close ties with the agency.

Slovic's article alleged that Birk was unfairly, "benefiting from a plan she helped steer," and that two consultants hired by Birk to implement the contract were being payed an exorbitant rate.

With the recent tone around bicycling from The Oregonian (Slovic also wrote their now infamous "Roads to Ruin" piece that unfairly blamed "bike routes" for PBOT's budget woes), it will be interesting to see how they cover the bike share contract. Stay tuned.

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Comments
  • Allan March 19, 2012 at 11:43 am

    I hope we don't slow down our roll-out of a bikesharing program from complaints like this in our city

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    • craig harlow March 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm
    • Joe Rowe March 19, 2012 at 11:57 pm

      - I wish we would go slow, phased and smart.

      Portland should have a RFP that allows all the bid companies to install 3-5 stations each and use a universal open source rack to bike attachment. If that can't happen then why not have a year long period where distant parts of the city are randomly assigned to the top 3 bike share contractors. Let the best field and user tested product win.

      I wonder why people are so opposed to minor delays to get better long term results?

      posted: 11:57pm on bp

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  • Rol March 19, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    As of right now I'd be willing to bet the complaint has at least some merit. Because personal connections are how things are routinely done. Nothing morally wrong with it; the only time it's a problem is cases like this where there are procurement rules.

    I'm also not satisfied with the denial. It lacks the detail to be convincing, and the paraphrase "no substance whatsoever" is categorical and therefore subject to my intense suspicion. For some reason I'm more satisfied with a denial like "Yes, I did have my hand on the cookie jar but I was just cleaning it" than one like "No, you are obviously totally insane for thinking I was anywhere near any cookie jar ever."

    The rules are there for fairness' sake. I'd like to think that if we were qualified, you or I could've gotten that contract. Dick Cheney through his personal connections conferred unfair advantage on ExxonMobil, BP et al, and we were all angry about it.

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    • A.K. March 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm

      I've also seen proposals written in such a way where technically, yes it's a contract that "anyone" could potentially win, but very specific products or brands are requested, and the language is such that one particular firm is almost guaranteed to get it.

      Not saying that happened here, but proposals are often put out with an idea in mind of who will probably win it.

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      • Rol March 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm

        The irony of all this is that a working relationship with the public officials, if it exists, usually makes that consultant more qualified!

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      • GlowBoy March 19, 2012 at 10:33 pm

        When I worked for a consulting firm that frequently bid on government contracts, we called those RFPs/RFQs "bag jobs" and usually declined to bother bidding on them. They were alarmingly common.

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  • ME 2 March 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I just read the 2010 WW article and Beth Slovic is pretty ignorant if she thinks those rates are exhorbitant compared to a PBOT employee's. Consulting rates include not only the individual's salary, but benefits, overhead, the admin person who submits invoices, the accountant who tracks this project in the general ledger, the costs to submit a proposal and negotiate a contract. I'm sure if benefits, overhead, and support staff costs were factored in those exhorbitant rates would be comparable or even lower than using city employees.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Paul Manson March 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Its Chicago. Thats how it's done.

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  • JJJ March 19, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    The allegations are the same exact ones made in Boston. DC was a no-bid situation from the get-go.

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  • dwainedibbly March 19, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    The appearance of wrong-doing is all it takes. If I was involved in the process here in Portland I would be going way, way out of my way to avoid any appearance of conflicts of interest. Hopefully the vendor selection will be very open and transparent so that there can be no doubt that the best-qualified company wins.

    I'm intentionally taking a neutral attitude towards Alta. I have tremendous respect for Mia Burke and all she has done for Portland and cycling in general. Alta has a great bikeshare product and knows the market. On the other hand, as I have posted elsewhere, this is an emerging market and there may be great ideas at other firms, so everyone should have a fair chance at the contract.

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    • dwainedibbly March 19, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      Oh yeah, and Beth Slovic? Sounds like she really fits in at the Oregonian.

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      • sabes March 19, 2012 at 9:11 pm

        You need to separate the message from the messenger. It's a logical fallacy. Just because you might not like her, or she writes for a newspaper you have no respect for, doesn't mean that her argument doesn't have merit. You need to separate the argument from the person.

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        • Chris I March 20, 2012 at 6:15 am

          At some point, the messenger is tainted sufficiently to warrant disregard for the message. You can't give 100% attention to every crackpot article that comes out. In this case, I agree with you, however.

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  • Travis March 19, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Personally, I have always felt uncomfortable about Alta and I imagine the press will ask/raise some reasonable questions. Hopefully, as Jonathan's post (in tone) insinuates, bikeportland.org won't take this personally. With this much money involved and Alta's close relations with the city we need the weeklies and The Oregonian to light a little heat. Some sources may be biased, but we have multiple views in this city. Alta must survive public opinion on this or they'll only face more heat down the line. Are they the best to ensure success? The best.

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  • Joe Rowe March 19, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Alta's entitled to their opinion that Alta "competed fair". That does not mean the competition was actually fair.

    Mia Birk and her assistants are good at public relations and outreach. Such experts re-frame issues and avoid directly answering questions.

    The main questions that need answers:

    - The Chicago Sun times reports these are not allegations, the city procurement rules were violated regarding calendar deadlines. URL below

    - Many other Chicago city rules were allegedly violated.

    - The times reports: "Rival bidders were told the five-member committee would “recommend” a contractor, but that Klein would have the final say."

    - Klein is the Chicago transportation commissioner who's department picked the bid committee of 5 people and set the quick 30 day deadline. Klein was on the Alta payroll and now states he later recused himself. Readers of the times allege he picked the 5 people and then avoided the final vote.

    - There's a history of this: Alta contractors helped design a proposal where they later won the bid. North Portland. Questions dogged.

    - 2 Bike share companies did not have the commissioner on their payroll. Those who did not win the bid are noted by the Tribune: Bike Chicago and its equipment provider,B-Cycle; and I-GO and its equipment providers, Tracetel and Schwinn

    http://www.suntimes.com/11341996-417/rival-citys-bike-sharing-program-tainted.html

    posted at 11:41pm on bikeportland.org

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  • Joe Rowe March 19, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    What are the bid details of the Portland bike RFP?

    - what's the timeline? 30 days like Chicago?

    - Is it profit shared v performance.Would privitized utilities prefer performance bids because it means the city gets less if the plan is highly profitable.

    - Is the RFP generic enough so that it's not biased to any one bid? Extreme or non essential specifications can be used for corruption.

    - Have all contractors signed that all their staff related in any way to the project have read and understand Portland's ethics?

    - Have all Portland city staff related to the project signed that they've read and understand the ethics?

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  • Richard Layman March 20, 2012 at 7:55 am

    DC wasn't a no bid situation. Arlington County put out a tender and the members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments have the right to join such bids/receive the same terms.

    As a competitor, there is no question that the Chicago RFP was a problem. The amount of time provided to respond (about 4.5 weeks) and the number of detailed requirements (especially the provision for 3 years of financials for all vendor partners), conflicting requirements (only two days before the bid was due did they say that requirements for being licensed in Chicago and Illinois had to be met not on submission, but upon signing the contract), were suspect.

    Our submitted questions specifically recommended more time to respond, especially as compared to NYC, where the bid period was about 11 weeks, and this was denied with a statement that this project was simpler.

    Because we knew that we couldn't submit a completed bid on that time frame, and that meant that it could be rejected for any reason, we didn't submit a bid.

    Then they did a re-posting of the RFP--without notifying previous registrants to the previous RFP--because they didn't complete the bid packages either.

    Anyway, it was already believed that Bixi had an in in Chicago because the CDOT Commissioner and his deputy were "made" by the introduction of bike sharing in DC, which for the most part was the most significant and visible project under their tenure in the department of transportation in DC.

    Even if Commissioner Klein recused himself, he picked the members of the selection committee, and his preferences would have to be widely known amongst key members of his organization, because that's the way stuff like this works in organizations--either forprofit, nonprofit, or government.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • anon1q2w3e4r5t March 20, 2012 at 9:43 am

    I guess this is a good time to add more heat on Alta Bike Share. 10 months ago Fortune ran an article about bike share systems and Alta Bike Share was one of the systems mentioned. In the comments section of the article, a person who claimed to be an ex-employee of Alta Bike Share (DC) revealed some interesting information about their ex-employer. The way the post is written makes me feel there is some truth to it. You can read the post here:

    http://disqus.com/cnn-83cf98e89d79236b6be75b9288/

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    • Joe Rowe March 20, 2012 at 11:44 am

      Thanks. Reader contributions are often the best news. . The Portland RFP should have a measurement about the lowest paid staff attitudes and benefits.

      Having slept more on this. Alta may not be the best long term solution for Portland or Chicago even if the Alta hardware and management was the best fit for the bid RFP.

      I think Portland should change the bid RFP relased last Friday. The first year should be a trial by 3 different companies to let the public test and prove the realities of the bike share companies to deliver. That would be a "fair and square" trial, to quote Alta. The test sites can be distant so people don't try to ride a long way and return a bike to a distant location for the trial period.

      In case Alta gets CNN to delete that comment I've copied/pasted it here:

      Capital Bike Share/alta bicycles denies health insurance to only the employees who ride bikes for the job because 6 million dollars of taxpayers money used to fund Capital Bikeshare was squandered away!!!!!!!

      THIS ONLY HAPPENED TO EMPLOYEES WHO RIDE BIKES FOR THE JOB!!!.

      My employment ended recently and i am so happy not to be working for Capital Bike Share anymore. when i was hired in november i was a full time employee with benefits and an option to have health insurance after a set amount of time. starting feb. Alta bikes, who is the mother company of Capital Bike Share, changed thier policy and made me and all of the people in my position a part time employee with out benefits. Then Alison Choen (president of Alta) took a vacation to the bahamas. I/we was also denied any buy in on the health plan they ues for full time employees. then a week or so later, they gave back everything TO ONLY THREE of the 8 people effected and called them managers. the rest were paid the amount of PTO they were alotted for the year (i had around 27 hours) and no longer allowed to work a 40 hour week capping out at 32hrs.
      THIS ONLY HAPPENED TO EMPLOYEES WHO RIDE BIKES FOR THE JOB!!!. the employees who drive vans (rebalancing the system), and station technitions were NOT affected by this change in policy(about 13 to 15 employees not affected). they all still have a full timer with insurance and benefits.

      Every time you rent a Bikeshare bike, just know that your 6 million dollars of taxpayers money used to fund Capital Bikeshare was squandered away. As it was stated by Alta "a mistake was made in thier budget" and therefore the bikecheckers will pay for this mistake with thier wellbeing. When you rent a Bikeshare bike, know that it functions properly because it was checked by a bikechecker. Know that said bikechecker traveled by bike to do thier job, and had his/her wellbeing stripped of them by thier employer Capital Bikeshare/Alta! Know that i am only able to say something because i do not work there anymore. Everyone in my position (even the 3 who were made managers) have strong feelings about this change and cannot speak up out of fear of losing thier job!!!

      THIS ONLY HAPPENED TO EMPLOYEES WHO RIDE BIKES FOR THE JOB!!!.

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      • anon1q2w3e4r5t March 21, 2012 at 7:17 am

        Yeah, I often find myself jumping to the comments section first before reading the article. I've learned quite a bit from just reading comments.

        I'm not for a bike share program in Portland, but even I would be OK with a 1 year trial instead of jumping straight into a 5 year contract.

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  • matt picio March 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    So, who owns the current Bike Share system in Chicago? (i.e. "Chicago B Cycle") They had 29 locations when I was there last fall. Is Alta expanding or replacing that system?

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    • anon1q2w3e4r5t March 21, 2012 at 7:22 am

      If I recall correctly, Josh Squire's bike rental company runs the Chicago Bcycle, but Bcycle is a collaboration between Trek (bike company), Humana (health insurance), and Crispin Porter + Bogusky (advertising agency).

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  • JJJ March 21, 2012 at 12:30 am

    matt picio
    So, who owns the current Bike Share system in Chicago? (i.e. "Chicago B Cycle") They had 29 locations when I was there last fall. Is Alta expanding or replacing that system?
    Recommended 0

    Thats their competitor. Those will be going away, as Alta uses a different (foreign) vendor.

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