Morning Fizz

Council Approves Pronto Deal, Ethics Questions Linger

A big win for bike share, though mayor never formally cleared SDOT director's role.

By Josh Feit March 15, 2016

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The city council voted 7-2 yesterday to approve a $1.4 million Pronto buyout, ending weeks of debate over a Seattle Department of Transportation proposal to buy the insolvent bike nonprofit’s infrastructure—54 station docks and 500 bikes—and then put out a request for proposal for a new contractor to operate a publicly owned system for the city. Another $5 million is earmarked to subsidize the future operator to get the system up and running.

The vote was a success for the new urbanist majority on the council led by transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien and planning committee chair Rob Johnson, who both pushed for the SDOT plan, arguing that bike share should be a basic piece of any city’s transportation infrastructure. To that end, Johnson amended the terms of any RFP adding that a mixed point-to-point/free-floating model should be considered. Advocates for bike share have argued that syncing it up with bus and light rail lines will make it a last mile/first mile component of the workday commute, and Johnson’s hybrid model, which would allow bikes to fan out into the neighborhoods, will better facilitate that. (Indeed, editorializing here, but the strongest argument against bike share in Seattle is the dominance of single-family neighborhoods in our grid.)

And lest you think urbanism is only for the two white nerd guys on the council, Lorena González, Debora Juarez, and Kshama Sawant supported the measure too; González had an amendment to commit the bike share planning process to reach out to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. To be fair to O’Brien and Johnson, the main part of their argument for a publicly owned system all along was the guarantees it provided to ensure that the system met equity goals. (O’Brien, for example, noted yesterday that his RFP guidelines had provisions to give access to people who don’t have access to credit cards, a point Johnson brought up earlier in committee.) However, to also (and more so) credit González—specifically mandating outreach, forces the city to make good on those liberal speaking points.

Another O’Brien amendment stipulated that SDOT must show that five specific bike infrastructure projects are on schedule to be completed before any bike share expansion can take place. The amendment seems like an acknowledgement that one criticism of Seattle’s bike share aspirations—that Seattle’s sucky bike infrastructure led to Pronto’s failure—is on point. However the amendment actually acknowledges the rejoinder to that criticism: that Seattle already has an impressive commitment to bike infrastructure. The five downtown projects, including expanding the Second Avenue bike lane and also building the Westlake bike lane are part of $20 million in 2016 bike infrastructure expenditures that SDOT already had budgeted. Indeed SDOT isn’t worried about the stipulation—which could potentially halt the bike share after a contractor is secured and ready to go next spring—because those projects are designed and ready to go.

The two council members who voted no were Tim Burgess and Lisa Herbold. Burgess floated an alternative proposal to use the money to pay back the federal grant on the equipment, shut down the system, and consider starting over with a public/private model to share the risks.

Burgess criticized the council for “optimism bias” noting that the system had already failed (though Johnson stepped in to point out that all transportation modes—cars too—are subsidized).

Herbold got off the sound bite of the day comparing the plan to buy Pronto’s equipment with the hope of upgrading to buying a flip phone while paying for a smart phone.

Herbold’s analogy is off base though, because Pronto’s technology is more like iPhone 6 tech, and upcycling it rather than tossing it should facilitate a smoother transition to an upgrade rather than starting over from scratch.

Bruce Harrell, who supported the buyout (Harrell is the only African American on the council, by the way), brought up perhaps the touchiest question of all: What about SDOT director Scott Kubly’s past relationship with Alta Bikes (Kubly was the director of Alta). Alta, now a new company called Motivate, operates Pronto and is a likely bidder to operate the new system. Was there a conflict of interest?

O’Brien said his amendment outlining the RFP process gave council full authority over choosing the new contractor, taking Kubly out of the loop.

I asked Kubly about this outstanding question after yesterday’s vote. (I’d actually interviewed Kubly about this issue before, but had since learned from council member Herbold that the law department hadn’t actually vetted Kubly over any potential conflict of interest as I’d been led to believe by the mayor’s office.)

Kubly, acknowledging there’s no written or formal record of the city vetting his relationship with Alta, says he talked with the ethics department about the rules and subsequently, at their advice, talked to the mayor’s office. He says he does “not remember” who he talked to in the mayor’s office.

Ethics director Wayne Barnett confirmed that he sat down with Kubly and “explained the ethics code”—you can’t work on any matter involving a private company where you worked a year prior without a written request from your boss (the mayor in this case) explaining why the assignment is necessary and what ethical safeguards are in place—and “did discuss with him what was required as the result of his past relationship with Alta.” Murray hired Kubly in July 2014, and it was widely known—and in fact hyped in the announcement—that he used to head up Alta/Motivate. Alta had already been selected as Pronto’s contractor at that point.

However, the ethics office never received a written request nor an outline of safeguards from the mayor’s office prior to Kubly’s bike share work, starting in the spring of 2015, to take over Pronto.

Kubly says he has no financial interest in Motivate and did not make any money from Motivate’s purchase of Alta. He says when SDOT began looking at taking over Pronto in May of 2015 (less than a year after being hired), “the only thing I had to do was disclose it [his past job at Alta].”

Kubly says he won’t be on the selection committee for the bike share RFP and argues that his past experience with bike share contracts (in DC and Chicago on the city side) actually makes him an asset to the city going forward. “Between Nicole [Freedman, SDOT’s bike share coordinator] and I, we’ve sited 900 bike share stations.”

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