PBOT funding request — including bike share — passes City Council

[Bike share is coming to Portland! Scroll down for updates]

City Council will vote today on
a funding request that includes the
Portland Bike Share project.
(Photo © J. Maus)

A request by the Portland Bureau of Transportation to fund a bike share project with $2 million from the federal government is up for a vote at City Council this morning.

(I’ll reset the issue below. Scroll down to see live updates.)

Along with bike share, the $9 million request includes two other active transportation projects as well as one freight project. As you’ve read on BikePortland in the last few days, the decision to include $2 million for bike share has proved unpopular with some people. Bike share itself is a project with a lot of support, but advocates for projects that were passed over in favor of bike share feel that PBOT made the wrong decision.

Yesterday I detailed the concerns from the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition and Upstream Public Health. They are disappointed that funding bike share continues a long trend of geographic inequity when it comes to transportation spending. Those groups, along with neighborhood activists, feel that a plan for safety improvements on SW Barbur Boulevard — that has been in the planning books for over a decade — deserves the money before bike share.

The other project that was passed over in favor of bike share was a $1.25 million request to fund planning and design for the Sullivan’s Gulch Corridor (note that advocates have dropped the “Trail” and replaced it with “Corridor” – good move!). Member of the Sullivan’s Gulch Corridor Committee, Paul Manson, wrote a letter to Mayor Adams yesterday outlining his disagreement with PBOT’s request.

“… the proposed slate of projects… is leaving amazing opportunities off the table. For the Sullivan’s Gulch Corridor Trail, funding is extremely difficult to come by as it is for all trails in the region…. We ask that the project selection be re-evaluated and updated to reflect how we can really achieve the goals of the Bicycle Master Plan and the vision of our city to create healthier communities, reduce our impact on the climate, and encourage new riders.”

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) is strongly backing the bike share project. Feeling heat from usual allies for prioritizing it over the Barbur and Sullivan’s Gulch projects, the BTA posted their case for bike share on their blog yesterday.

Politically in Portland, a proposal needs just three out of five commissioners (which includes the Mayor) to pass. Right now, bike share has two strong yes votes. Mayor Adams is a big booster of the project and Commissioner Randy Leonard told me yesterday that, after seeing bike share in action in London last year, “he’s an enthusiastic yes vote.”

Commissioner Amanda Fritz has been very public about her opposition to the bike share funding request. She’d rather fund safety improvements on Barbur and she won’t vote for bike share until what she perceives as “dangerous” bicycling behavior downtown subsides.

The other two commissioners, Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman, haven’t shared their feelings on the issue yet. As a frequent bike rider himself, my hunch is that Fish is a yes vote. He also happens to be a close friend of Mia Birk, who happens to be CEO of Alta Planning + Design, the parent company of Alta Bicycle Share, which is one of the premier bike share operators in the country.

If Council approves the PBOT funding request today, it’s likely that Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation will also approve the list. However, there is a 30-day public comment period that will begin in September before the final decision is made.

See below for live updates from City Council…(also read me on Twitter).

Read updates from City Hall below… (Most recent at the bottom, also follow BikePortland on Twitter).

Mayor Adams introduces the proposal. Amazingly he didn’t even mention the term “bike share” when he listed them all. He called it a “new transportation option for Portlanders.” Adams talked about how difficult the choices are with this money, but maintained that because East Portland has more traffic “carnage” than SW Portland, he stands by his funding request. “We don’t have luxury of dealing with all dangerous places, we have the grim task of dealing with just the most dangerous places… It’s a tough trade-off.”


“I’ll be blunt. Over the years I have put more money into East Portland than into Southwest… That’s where the most carnage is… It’s not an easy decision, but I stand by it.”

On bike share, Adams said advocates have been asking him for it “the entire time I’ve been transportation commissioner.” He said he’s waited because he wanted to learn lessons from other cities. Adams cited successful programs in other cities and said bike share is “the cheapest form of public transit available.”

In closing, Adams opened up the debate by saying, “I’m not going to say list is perfect, I’m open to amendments.”

And Commissioner Nick Fish got the ball rolling quickly…

Commissioner Fish jumped right in with a proposed amendment to PBOT’s resolution. Saying that he feels the Sullivan’s Gulch project could be a “game changer” and that SW Barbur Blvd improvements are “equally, if not more compelling” than other projects on the list, he put forth a proposal for $750,000 for Barbur and $500,000 for Sullivan’s Gulch.

Fish’s proposal passed unanimously. “These aren’t maybe going to be funded,” said Mayor Adams, “We will identify sources of funding.”

The proposal commits the City to finding $1.25 in new funding and does not impact the existing proposal. Fish said the bike share project is a “unique opportunity” because the $2 million federal grant would leverage another $2 million in private funds needed for start-up costs to get the project up and running. “The fact that $2 [million] could become $4 [million] is compelling.”

Fish’s Barbur proposal would be used for improvements between 19th and 26th streets and would use a mix of ODOT grants, “project-cost savings” and “PBOT safey accounts” to pay for it. For Sullivan’s Gulch, Fish said it would go to design and construction “on existing right-of-way” (that’s key, because much of the corridor is held by Union Pacific Railroad, which hasn’t shown interest in working with the City on the project yet).

PBOT staff presented the project list. Interim Division Manager for Transportation Options, Dan Bower, presented on bike share. Bower showed the Streetfilms about the NiceRide bike share system in Minneapolis. Following the film, Bower (and other PBOT staff) faced a lot of questions from Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Amanda Fritz.

Saltzman asked about PBOT’s confidence in the expected $2 million match. Bower acknowledged that the actual match could vary, but that they are confident in the number. “What if you get just $500,000?” asked Saltzman, to which Bower replied that, while bike share is scalable, they’ve learned from other cities that it’s best to “go big or don’t go at all.” “It’s like a trapeze,” Bower said, drawing a comparing to how many kiosks are installed, “You won’t get on if you don’t think another one will come… We think $4 million will get Portland what it wants.”

Bower (and Adams) assured Saltzman that no City money would be used for the bike share project.

Commissioner Fritz then questioned PBOT staff. “My understanding was that the Sullivan’s Gulch project was preferred by the Bicycle Advisory Committee rather than bike share… So how did it leapfrog?” PBOT Planning Manager Paul Smith explained that the BAC wasn’t the only group whose input was weighed in making their decision.

Following up on concerns I shared yesterday, Fritz asked PBOT staff, “How will we educate riders that ride on sidewalks?” Adams interjected, “That’s an incredibly fair and useful question.” Adams said he and PBOT plan to come back to Council with a plan to address that concern in about three weeks.

Now the meeting moved on to public testimony…

Chris Smith, a very well-respected transportation activist, former City Council candidate and current City of Portland Planning Commissioner (speaking as personal opinion, not in an official capacity) expressed very strong support for bike share.

“I believe bike share will be transformational; not because it will increase bike mode share, increase health, boost tourism… but because I believe it’s a vital investment for the health of our Central City economy. To retain the position of our Central City in the region, we need to increase trips into it by about 50% in the next 20 years. That won’t happen with cars… Bike share is an easy way to pick up those easy trips.”

The tone of representatives from advocacy groups Upstream Public Health and the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition seemed to have softened today. Far from demanding a swap of the bike share project for the SW Barbur project, they seemed pleased to support Commissioner Fish’s amendment.

Citizen activists who live in Southwest, however, weren’t as conciliatory.

Marianne Fitzgerald rolled out a large map of the city showing the 50 arterials that lack sidewalks. “We believe we need safety improvements… Sunday Parkways won’t even be held in our area because it’s so dangerous. We’ve been waiting for a long time,” she said.

Fitzgerald pointed out that the SW Barbur project would improve an area with a commercial node that includes a senior center, parks, bust stops, and many large stores. “We have all the ingredients of a 20 minute neighborhood except sidewalks and bike paths.”

Fitzgerald also expressed dismay that the bike share program has never been brought to the board of Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. and that there haven’t been any public meetings about it.

Another Southwest Portland neighborhood activist (I didn’t get his name) echoed Fitzgerald’s comments. The man was concerned that Fish’s amendment included funding that might never materialize. “There is a historical precedent here,” he said, “We get many promises [in Southwest Portland], but very little actual funding… the funding sources aren’t concrete… This sounds like a repetition of 12 years ago.”

The proposal passed 4-1. See below for testimony from each commissioner prior to their votes…

Saltzman votes yes; but with caveats. Saltzman said he expects that the Request for Proposals (RFP) will include language specifically stating that no public funds will be used to operate the bike share system and that, “The entire operating cost will be provided by the private sector and will use private sector employees.” Saltzman said that he would “unequivocally” not support any public subsidies for bike share. He mentioned that Council heard today about a community mental health crisis in Portland and that, “To me, that’s more important that funding bike share operating costs.” “Also,” he added, “if they [those costs] aren’t being covered by user fees and sponsors, it tells me something is wrong with the business model.”

Leonard votes yes, saying he’s particularly impressed with how the project brings in private sector matches and how it creates jobs.

Fritz votes no. “I cannot support this.” She also said there is, “No new money” to fund Fish’s amendment. Fritz said we’ve got to start plugging away on the lack of sidewalks sometime or it will never happen. “As a reality check,” she said, “one mile of sidewalks on SW Capitol Hwy would cost $19 million.”

“This proposal prioritizes $2 million for a bike share program — which if it’s such a good idea I don’t know why the private sector hasn’t done it — rather than putting money into basic services… It makes me very uncomfortable to fund more active transportation options when I can’t get off the bus one stop earlier because there’s no sidewalk… There’s a lot to like in this proposal, but we have hundreds of millions of dollars of sidewalks and crossings needed and if we don’t start plugging away we are not going to have them funded in my lifetime.”

Fish votes yes. “In a perfect world we’ve have enough money to fund everything… but we don’t operate in a perfect world. My amendment would make a substantial down payment.” To thwart the equity concerns, Fish added that, “By my math [including the $1.25 in his proposal] 75% of these funds are being spent outside downtown.”

Adams votes yes. “It’s important that folks understand that these things [bike share] start in the most dense areas and then, with success, they can move further out. In our case, we have a significant concentration of low-income folks downtown and being able to provide them an ability to expand their mobility… I look forward to that… I also look forward to the opportunities on the Yellow MAX line Killingsworth stop near Portland Community College — which is a 15 minute walk and a three minute bike ride from the stop.”

That’s it for today folks. A momentous day for bike share believers that sets into motion a project that PBOT first showed interest in way back in February 2007. And let’s not forget that the project list also includes some major investments in bicycling and walking access improvements in East Portland (including neighborhood greenways, buffered bike lanes, and much more) and improved crossings of SE Foster.

From here, the project list will move to Metro where it’s likely to be adopted in December. In the meantime, PBOT will work on its Request For Proposals to find a suitable operator for the bike share system. The federal flexible funds won’t actually become available to the City until 2014, but Mayor Adams said today that, as per usual, Council could allocate money before that time to get a jumpstart on the projects.

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