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With sponsors in hand, city likely to delay Portland bike share until 2015

Portland appears closer than ever to a big bike share sponsorship deal, but its supplier’s failed software has led to a cascading series of delays.
(Photos J.Maus/BikePortland)

The City of Portland is currently lining up official schedules to set a date for its announcement of private sponsors for Portland’s bike share system, two sources familiar with the plans said last week and Tuesday.

“We could announce any time,” PBOT Active Transportation Director Dan Bower confirmed in an interview Tuesday. “We’re really looking for a good venue.”

Bower also said, in the city’s most certain terms to date, that the city expects to again delay its launch date, this time to spring 2015. “To get it done this fall, I would need to be at city council tomorrow,” Bower said.

The scheduling of a sponsor announcement, which Bower said will certainly happen by the end of April, will be a key moment for the 750-bike, 75-station system — a sign that its main obstacle is no longer a source of money but rather the need for Alta Bicycle Share to pair working hardware and software in the wake of its main supplier’s bankruptcy.

Also Monday, Alta Bicycle Share confirmed for the first time that it has “successfully secured” a “soon-to-be-announced sponsorship team” for the system, a choice of words suggesting that multiple sponsors have agreed to put substantial private money behind the system in exchange for logos and other branding on the system’s equipment.

The city still doesn’t have a “signed sponsor agreement,” spokesman Dylan Rivera said in an interview Monday. But with staffers down to brass tacks on announcing a sponsorship deal whose contours were verbally agreed to months ago, it’s clearer than ever that the delay isn’t due to a lack of private sponsor money.

Instead, several signs suggest that the city’s main obstacle at the moment is somewhat subtler: the chance that Alta’s new equipment might not work properly.

A bike share equipment demo in Portland in 2010 that used an earlier, more functional generation of bike share software.

First, let’s add up the factors behind the city’s one-year delay.

The Portland Mercury has reported several times on the likelihood of a second delay. On Monday, The Oregonian quoted Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick as saying the city is “uncertain as all get-out” that a 2014 launch is possible, due to problems with Alta’s equipment. In its winning proposal to the city, Alta said that bike share systems require at least six months between announcement and launch — timing that would, assuming an April launch announcement, bring Portland bike share into operation by October 2014 at the soonest.

In other words, Portland bike share would launch just as the rain begins, and at the exact time that Portland voters could begin voting on the biggest transportation ballot issue of the decade. (Rivera said Tuesday that Mayor Charlie Hales currently thinks the city council may actually pass a revenue measure in June rather than putting it to a public vote.)

How unlikely is the city to launch bike share immediately before a public ballot issue? Before you answer, consider consulting this Copenhagenize chart that attempts to summarize the usual pattern of public sentiment toward new bike share systems.

A delay into 2015, though embarrassing given the system’s original 2013 launch date, would have two obvious advantages for the city, Alta, and the system’s sponsors:

In a statement emailed to BikePortland and the Portland Mercury Monday, Alta executive Mia Birk alluded to the first possibility:

We are very excited about our alliance with proven technology leader 8D, the original supplier of technology to the Bixi systems. We have worked hard and successfully secured a top-notch, soon-to-be-announced sponsor team. Although we are ready to launch bike share in 2014, we understand the city’s goals and desires to do our careful research and due diligence.

We are also proud of the phenomenal success of bike share in the eight cities in which we operate currently and know that Portland — whenever it launches — is going to be a phenomenal success as well.

Bower said Tuesday that the city’s desire to delay is due only to a desire for certainty, rather than a feeling that the equipment is actually unlikely to work.

“We think Alta’s supply is going to be good; everything we’re hearing about it is good,” Bower said. “What they’ve offered us is actually pretty exciting. It’s got some good features.”

One thing neither the city or Alta seem to be telegraphing, at least at the moment, is the possibility of putting the entire bike share system on the November ballot as part of the city’s revenue proposal.

“We’re confident that we’re launching this system,” the city spokesman, Rivera, said Monday, adding: “The city is more concerned about the quality of the launch than the timing of the launch.”

Bicycle Transportation Alliance Executive Director Rob Sadowsky and Oregon Bicycle Racing Association Director Kenji Sugahara ride Capital Bikeshare in Washington, DC, in 2012.

That’s an attitude that seems to be shared, one way or another, by all the major players.

Alta, for its part, essentially forced Bixi into bankruptcy itself when its affiliate operations in Chicago and New York withheld payments to their supplier in protest of Bixi’s failure to provide fully functional software. Among other things, this opened the door to Alta’s deal with 8D, the success or failure of which seems crucial for Alta Bicycle Share.

And then there’s the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Portland advocacy group that got enthusiastically behind bike share in 2011 and would again be involved if the city decides to announce a sponsorship deal at the April 21 Oregon Active Transportation Summit, which the BTA hosts. A source outside the BTA said last week that this was one of several dates being considered.

BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky said Monday that he can’t blame the city or its sponsor for waiting to launch until Alta has a set of equipment in working order.

“The best we can do is put out the best product we can,” Sadowsky said.

Correction 5 pm: An earlier version of this post misattributed to another speaker Rivera’s statement that Mayor Hales doesn’t currently expect a revenue ballot issue in November.

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