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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Waiting on Bike Share? It's at Least a Year Away, and Here's Why

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, Mar 14, 2013 at 3:29 PM

If you chanced visiting the website for Portland's upcoming bike share program last year, you were greeted with a large proclamation: Coming Spring 2013. Yet here we are, a week shy of that gentle season, and no fleet of sturdy, plodding rental bikes has flooded the center city as planned.

Now, the city's bike share site quietly announces: "Portland Bike Share is scheduled to open in spring 2014."

A year late? What happened?

A bike share rack in Chattanooga, Tenn.
  • Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System
  • A bike share rack in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A number of things, according to Steve Hoyt-McBeth, who manages the project. Mainly the question of funding.

When the city sent out a request for proposals on bike share—which will sprinkle bike rental kiosks throughout Portland, allowing users to take a bike from one dock and return it at another—it hoped the companies that aspired to run the program would respond with sponsors in tow.

Bike share is, after all, a fairly appealing notion—increasing the public's transportation options, promoting health, and potentially reducing emissions in the city.

But sponsors have been elusive. Portland received $2 million in federal funds to get the effort off its feet and has refused to use city money. It's now short almost $3 million to pay for equipment and "turn it on," as Hoyt-McBeth put it. The program needs corporate help.

That's not at all uncommon. Bike share programs throughout the country have used sponsorships to buy systems and fill in operational funding gaps (usage fees are rarely enough).

But "no one came forward with committed sponsors," said Hoyt-McBeth.

Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, officially chosen in September to run the program, didn't even kick off fundraising in earnest until late last month.

According to Alta President—and former City of Portland bike program manager— Mia Birk, that's mostly because a contract with the city wasn't executed until February 1 — nearly five months after Alta was selected.

Birk said her company's been reaching out to potential partners, and has just commissioned a study for how much a sponsorship might be worth for an advertiser — around $3 million a year.

"We have talked to a lot of firms," she said. "We have dangled a lot of carrots."

But if there are promising prospects, no one is naming them. Regence BlueCross BlueShield was rumored to have interest early on in the process.

Of course, once Alta finds the funding, it's roughly a six-month process to get a system set up, Hoyt-McBeth said. But even if a sponsor ponied up today, we wouldn't see bike share for a year or so. Administrators are keen to get it going in the springtime, with months of summer sunshine—and their attendant tourists—on the horizon.

"We really want to launch the system where we have an opportunity for growth that first year," said Hoyt-McBeth. "If you launch in September, you get a month of good cycling."

Alta, which runs bike share programs in Montreal Boston, Washington, D.C, and elsewhere, is no stranger to delay. It found funding for a massive system in New York City, but has been plagued by hiccups in the software it used for the project. The result: A system that was supposed to be operational last July is now slated for May.

There's no sign software will be an issue in Portland. An Alta system in Chattanooga, Tennessee—using the same computer program Alta will use in Portland—had some glitches when it launched in July but has since met expectations, that city's bicycle coordinator, Philip Pugliese, tells the Mercury.

But funding to buy bikes and kiosks (the city is currently thinking 750 bikes at 75 stations) isn't the only piece still missing for Portland. Once it's got a system going, Alta must still find a way to fund operations. User fees have yet to be hammered out, but Hoyt-McBeth said the city is anticipating a shortfall of about $960,000 in the program's first year.

And still more questions linger. What, for instance, will bike share mean for local bike rental shops, some of which are bracing for impact? How about for a cash-strapped TriMet, banking on money from the eliminated free rail zone?

Those answers are a ways off. But you can count on one thing, Hoyt-McBeth said.

"We have full confidence in having the station planning done in time to have a spring 2014 launch."

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