Waiting for the Dough 

Why Bike Share Is Still a Year Away

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ANYONE VISITING the website for Portland's upcoming bike-share program last year was greeted with a cheery proclamation: "Coming spring 2013." But if you've been downtown lately, there hasn't been a fleet of rental bikes springing, daffodil-like, from the earth.

Check the city's bike-share site again. It now quietly announces: "Portland Bike Share is scheduled to open in spring 2014."

Portland, it seems, is the latest aspiring bike-share city to run into unforeseen delays in implementing the system—which will sprinkle bike rental kiosks throughout Portland, allowing users to take a bike from one dock and return it at another.

So what happened?

A number of things, says Steve Hoyt-McBeth, a Portland Bureau of Transportation employee who manages the project. Primarily, though, it's because there isn't enough money—not yet, at least.

When the city sent out a request for proposals on bike share, it figured the companies vying 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 improving air quality.

Portland received $2 million in federal funds to get the effort off its feet and has refused to use city money. But according to Hoyt-McBeth, the company chosen to run the program, Alta Bicycle Share, is now short almost $6 million needed to pay for the program's equipment and run it for five years. Bike share is still waiting for corporate help.

That's not uncommon. Similar programs throughout the country have used sponsorships to buy systems and fill in operational funding gaps.

But "no one came forward with committed sponsors," says Hoyt-McBeth. Portland-based Alta, tapped in September, didn't even kick off fundraising in earnest until late last month.

According to Alta President Mia Birk—the city's former bike program manager—that's mostly because a contract with the city wasn't signed until late January, nearly four months after Alta was selected.

Birk says 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—about $3 million a year.

"We have talked to a lot of firms," she says. "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.

Should Alta find the funding, it's roughly a six-month process to get a system set up. But even if a sponsor pays up today, we won'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 the attendant tourists—on the horizon.

"We really want to launch the system when we have an opportunity for growth that first year," says Hoyt-McBeth.

Alta, which runs bike-share programs in Boston, Washington, DC, 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 that software will be an issue in Portland. An Alta system in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had some glitches when it launched in July 2012, but has since met expectations, says the city's bicycle coordinator, Philip Pugliese.

Simply purchasing and setting up a system, obviously, isn't enough. Alta must also find a way to fund operations. User fees have yet to be hammered out, Hoyt-McBeth says. But even with user fees, the city is anticipating a shortfall of about $960,000 in the program's first year.

That estimate offers an idea of what bike-share users can expect to pay for a year subscription to the service: Hoyt-McBeth says rates of $75 to $100 a year have been discussed.

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, already facing declining ridership and banking on money from the eliminated free rail zone?

Those answers are a ways off. But one thing is certain, according to Hoyt-McBeth. "We have full confidence in having the station planning done in time to have a spring 2014 launch."

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