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As opposition grows, supporters defend bike share funding decision

Not even 24 hours has passed and the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s (PBOT) decision to include bike share in a federal funding request is already facing opposition — and some of it is coming from unlikely places.

But, while this bike share funding decision is poised to become just the latest bike-related political/media punching bag, supporters of the project are confident and feel that the time is right to move forward.

At issue is whether or not a large-scale bike-sharing system deserves funding priority over other, more traditional biking and walking safety projects. Bike share is on a $6.6 million list of three active transportation projects that PBOT hopes to get adopted by City Council tomorrow. Not on that list is the SW Barbur Boulevard Streetscape project, which would improve a street that has claimed two lives in the last year and that many neighborhood activists have been working on for years.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz has already made her opposition known based on her familiar mantra that PBOT should focus on “basic services” first. On the 11 o’clock news last night, a veteran southwest neighborhood activist expressed disappointment that the SW Barbur Streetscape Plan was passed over in favor of bike share. (KATU-TV framed the decision as Mayor Adams putting bike share in front of much-needed sidewalks.)

Also last night, a joint campaign to advocate for the Barbur project — instead of bike share — was launched by two non-profits. Upstream Public Health and the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition (WPC) are using Facebook and grassroots outreach to urge members and supporters to testify against PBOT’s bike share funding request at City Council on Wednesday.

Upstream and the WPC’s main objections are that bike share “does not address [geographic] equity in a meaningful way,” that the safety improvements on SW Barbur are urgently needed and long overdue, and that bike share has not gone through an adequate public outreach process (many elements of the Barbur project where identified by neighborhood groups over 10 years ago).

This activism by Upstream and WPC puts them at odds with a usual ally, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. The BTA has been a vocal supporter of bike share and has emerged recently as its main booster, helping to build a coalition of public and private stakeholders around the project. In their recently released Strategic Plan, the BTA says, “We will push the City of Portland to launch bike sharing before the end of summer 2012.”

BTA Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky says advocates should be working together to get a larger piece of the funding pie, instead of fighting over scraps. “We don’t have enough money to fund all the priority projects we want, we have to work together to get more funding at every level. Period.”

Kransky also said the BTA supports PBOT’s funding request for bike share.

“We think bike sharing is a fantastic project that stands on its own merits, and in terms of how it increases access, safety and serves all Portlanders.” (The safety argument for bike share has been bolstered by new research that shows a strong correlation between improved traffic safety and the use of a bike share system.)

Bike share is the only project on the list, Kransky points out, that doesn’t rely on City funding (the plan is to use a mix of federal and private funds for the $4 million start up cost and and a mix of user fees and sponsorship for the $1.5 million yearly operational costs). He also says it’s the only project that will create about 30-50 long-term (non-construction) jobs, some of which are already lined up to go to homeless and at-risk youth through a partnership with local non-profit New Avenues for Youth.

WPC Executive Director Stephanie Routh is also concerned that there hasn’t been a robust public process for the bike share project. To that point, Kransky says the federal funds won’t be available until 2014 and that there will be plenty of opportunities to fine-tune the project and hear public feedback about it before then.

Routh says she isn’t opposed to the bike share project, she just feels it’s not the right fit for this specific funding source at this time. “If, as a City, we are truly concerned with both the safety and the equitable distribution of our transportation resources,” reads a sample letter to Commissioners, “then the Barbur project, in addition to the East Portland and Foster Road projects, is a clear choice for the Regional Flexible Funds.”

In their defense, PBOT says the Barbur project is in flux due to an ongoing planning project and it wouldn’t make sense to move forward on a project with so many undecided elements. They also feel that they’ve adequately addressed the equity issue. In a presentation they’ll make to Council tomorrow, PBOT will point out that 70 percent of the $6.6 million they’ve requested for active transportation projects will benefit “low income and minority populations.”

After Council votes tomorrow, the project list will be forwarded to Metro where a 30-day public comment period will commence in September. A Metro committee will make the final decision on December 8th, 2011.

— Stay tuned for more bike share project coverage and check out the BikePortland archives to learn more.

UPDATE: The BTA just posted on their blog about their support for bike share in light of the WPC’s concerns.

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