Morning Fizz

Democrats Give in to Road Rage in Olympia

Democrats abandon transit advocates, council ponders bike sharing.

By Josh Feit February 3, 2016

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1. For starters, don't miss the essay from Iowa we published late yesterday—confessions of a Hillary Clinton caucus volunteer

2. The Seattle Department of Transportation made the case for saving Pronto, the nonprofit bike share network, to city council member Mike O’Brien’s transportation committee yesterday (my tweets are here); Pronto, which doesn’t have enough revenue to pay off its initial loan, is about to go under, and SDOT wants the city to spend $1.4 million to pay off the debt and then take the nonprofit over and expand it.

The $1.4 million was part of an original $15 million city hall plan to expand the service and buy electric bikes, but $10 million of that evaporated when the feds didn’t come through with a grant for the expansion. Expanding and buying e-bikes are key to turning the system’s low ridership numbers around—the bigger the network, the more sustainable it becomes. And the remaining $3.6 million is hardly enough.

To O’Brien’s frustration, SDOT’s presentation didn’t come with a specific business plan other than the immediate pitch to stabilize the program—there are currently 50-plus stations with 500 bikes and 3,000 members—and then have the city put it out to bid again in 2017.

SDOT staffer Nicole Freedman said that if Pronto got out from under its debt, the current user revenues and sponsorships would allow the system to break even. Council member Rob Johnson, the only council member who showed up to committee to hear the presentation (and who’s all in on saving Pronto), pointed out that the city is already on the hook to repay a $1 million federal grant as part of the original deal and that city payment would go away if the system survived. Johnson summarized the situation, saying: "We have to write a check to somebody. We either have to write a check for a million dollars to the federal government, and shut the system down, or we write a million-and-a-half-dollar check to Pronto to allow the system to live for another year while we determine the financial feasibility. Either way, we're writing a check, and the question is are we writing a check and shutting down the system or are we writing a check to let the system survive for another year and evaluate its effectiveness." 

O’Brien, however, pointed out that the city wouldn’t just be spending the $1.4 million; the city would suddenly have to staff and manage Pronto. How would we do that, O’Brien wanted to know.

“I think that becomes me!” Freedman, who ran a successful bike share program in Boston, said.

O’Brien’s committee didn’t take any action yesterday (Pronto will go under in March if the city doesn’t bail it out); O’Brien reasoned that his other council colleagues are likely to have questions. Indeed, letters have been coming in to city hall suggesting that the $5 million could go to homelessness programs.

And while Freedman’s presentation did prioritize social equity—making sure the expansion served communities of color—there was also this recent study that showed Pronto wasn’t doing so great on that score in Seattle.

Go to the 34 minute mark to watch SDOT's presentation. And here's a Seattle Bike Blog post making the case for the expansion.

3. Supposed transit advocates in Olympia—Democrats on the house and senate transportation committee, including house transportation chair Judy Clibborn (D-41, Mercer Island) and assistant senate transportation committee ranking member Marko Liias (D-21, Lynnwood)—sent a letter to Washington Department of Transportation head Lynn Peterson yesterday calling on WSDOT to eliminate tolls (during non-rush hours) on I-405 that in essence allow solo drivers to buy their way onto carpool and bus lanes.

Transit fans support the program because it encourages carpooling and provides a reliable lane for buses—and WSDOT has data showing the program has improved commute times.

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However, signing off on angry anecdotes instead of analysis, the Democrats caved to the road rage.

Bashfully acknowledging the actual stats, but simultaneously giving in to ambient anger, the letter coyly states:

While travel times have improved through the corridor overall, especially for transit trips, the implementation of ETL has made travel more difficult for a number of other drivers and trips. To provide some relief to drivers, we are calling on you to eliminate tolls during evening non-peak hours, weekends, and holidays, to the extent that such a change will improve commuters’ experience on I-405. We feel that, while such a change might not be to the benefit of all commuters, it would be a show of good faith for those drivers who have experienced adverse effects on their time and their wallets.

Other key Democrats (and transit advocates with their bearings intact) on the state transportation committees—senators Pramila Jayapal (D-37, Southeast Seattle) and Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Ballard, Queen Anne) and representatives Jessyn Farrell (D-46, North Seattle) and Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) didn't sign the letter. 

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