Seattle's News Elixir

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1. I've got a story in this month's magazine on new city council member Lorena González titled:

"Lorena González Has an Agenda of Her Own: Both the left and right want to claim the new city council member as their own. Boy, are they in for a surprise."

2. Speaking of the city council. There was quite a hearing yesterday afternoon.

Once again, the Seattle Department of Transportation went before the city council’s transportation committee seeking approval to write a $1.4 million check to buyout Pronto, the local bike share nonprofit. And once again, council’s answer was inconclusive.

At least there was a vote this time; after SDOT’s previous two pitches last month in front of the transportation committee, council member Mike O’Brien, the committee chair, had simply put the vote off until next time. However, yesterday’s vote didn’t resolve much: at yesterday’s meeting, O’Brien’s official proposal to approve SDOT’s Pronto acquisition deadlocked in a three-to-three split.

In a little good news for SDOT, two other adversarial proposals—one by council member Lisa Herbold to deny the acquisition and one by council member Tim Burgess for a public/private hybrid model that would have effectively delayed SDOT’s plan and put Pronto out of service for now—lost outright. Herbold’s proposal didn’t get a single vote other than her own.  

O’Brien’s proposal to approve SDOT’s plan, which came with some stipulations, such as giving council direct oversight of SDOT’s bike share request for proposal process and requiring monthly reporting on bike share ridership data in the future, got three votes.

That was enough to move the proposal ahead to full council. But three council members—Burgess, Herbold, and Debora Juarez—also voted no, which means O’Brien’s proposal heads to council without any clear recommendation (majority support would have given the buyout a convincing thumbs up recommendation at full council.) With yesterday’s blurry recommendation moving forward—full council will take it up in two weeks—SDOT’s proposal for a city owned bike share is still up in the air.

The argument that carried the day for O’Brien’s proposal (or at least enough to move it out of committee) was the notion that public ownership would give the city the power to design the system itself, ensuring that it met public transit and equity goals. “The concern I have when I look at the privately owned systems,” council member Rob Johnson, who supported O’Brien’s legislation and criticized Herbold’s alternative proposal for a free market model, said “is that it does not result in an equitable outcomes that we would be able to ask of a private operator.” Johnson, who distributed maps showing that New York City’s privately-owned bike share system stops dead as it approaches Harlem, noted that Car2Go, the private car share company in Seattle, initially stopped north of I-90. Johnson also noted that all transportation systems—cars and buses—require public investment.

“Transportation is inherently a public good,” Johnson said, “and therefore has public subsidies associated with it.”

O’Brien seconded Johnson’s point about Car2Go, noting first that car sharing started in the region with public subsidies; he also said he “wasn’t aware” of any Car2Go low-income membership program in Seattle. I’m not sure that’s true, though their website doesn’t advertise any low-income options.

The key, third vote for SDOT’s public ownership model was Kshama Sawant. Despite the fact that, yes, Sawant is a socialist, this was actually a surprise. Herbold’s populist argument against spending money on bike sharing after voters just approved a hefty $930 million property tax levy to fund other transportation needs, seemed to jibe with Sawant’s own populist politics. However, Sawant was clearly persuaded by Johnson and O’Brien and broke into an urbanism-as-social-justice-pitch. Echoing Johnson's transit wonkery about the “first-mile, last-mile” function of putting bike share stations at transit hubs, Sawant said: “If we’re talking about a fully fledged mass transit system in a city of this size, we cannot just have investments on arterial routes, we also need feeder routes to make mass transit usable. I like the idea of using bicycles as feeder transit to Sound Transit [light rail].”

Sawant also cheered SDOT’s focus on making Orca cards (and a low-income Orca option) a key part of any winning contract bid.

Sawant, in fact, was taken enough with SDOT’s option that she gave an unusual shoutout to SDOT staffer Nicole Freedman, SDOT’s lead on the bike share program, calling Freedman’s photographic memory of bike share stats “scary" and "impressive.”

Screen shot 2016 03 02 at 9.11.58 am sri9el

Everyone wasn’t so sanguine about SDOT; the agency’s lack of transparency throughout the last eight months when they knew Pronto was in financial trouble was palpable. (SDOT, in fact, has already quietly spent $305,000 to keep Pronto afloat.) The frustration with SDOT director Scott Kubly surfaced in one weird moment when Burgess pressed Kubly about the $305,000. “If you knew in May 2015 that Pronto was at risk and might not be a going concern and viable, why didn’t you start the process then to look at alternatives, and do an RFP process as opposed to coming to us now and saying, in many ways, 'continue the risk, put more money in, we’re going to run this RFP process, and hope that gets us what we’re looking for'?”

When Kubly paused to gather his thoughts with the standard, “that’s a great question," Burgess quipped (though with little humor), “That’s why I asked it” (to uncomfortable laughter all around.)

O’Brien seconded sternly, “he’s known for his good questions.” Kubly gave a rambling answer and Johnson had to bail him out by noting that SDOT had been counting on a federal grant. Maybe highlighting Pronto’s problems at the time wouldn’t have been a smart strategy, Johnson offered.

Speaking of weird moments: Freedman also denounced private bike share systems by pointing out that the spokesperson for Miami Beach’s bike share system is a former Playboy model. “That’s what you get,” she said. (Let the First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave feminist discussion begin, but my two cents: So what?)

Another non sequitur at yesterday’s debate came during public testimony when 23rd Avenue business owner Sara Brereton seized on the potential Pronto buyout as an argument for her cause: Money for beleaguered businesses on 23rd—she owns 701 Coffee—which are getting squeezed by SDOT’s construction project there.

After months of controversy, the city finally stepped up last month with $650,000 in mitigation money for low-income businesses on the strip. But Brereton told council yesterday: “Pronto, a single out of state business, is insolvent because it had a business plan that failed, and it stands to be bailed out for millions of dollars, Yet SDOT, completely dropped the ball on 23rd Avenue. $650,000 for 23rd Avenue is woefully short…for what nearly a dozen of us need.”

Her analogy makes no sense: SDOT is not planning to bail out Pronto. It’s planning to buy it out, take control of its assets, dictate its service model, and hire a new company. Additionally, transportation infrastructure is a public asset and a tool for social justice.

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