PBOT Director Leah Treat
  • PBOT
  • PBOT Director Leah Treat

Leah Treat, Portland's transportation director, is concerned something's been lost lately in discussion of a bike share system here.

With yet another delay seeming more likely every day, and sponsorship negotiations going hot and heavy behind the scenes, Portland Bureau of Transportation staff say the benefits of our incoming bike share system have been obscured by coverage of the broader implementation process.

So Treat called the Mercury this morning to make the case afresh. And I'll get right into it, after this tiny bit of process coverage.

While we've known for months the city has considered fronting some of the $5.5 million in sponsorship cash it's seeking, Treat revealed that PBOT's now sort of counting on that.

"In our financial plan, we have made the assumption that we might need to cover the costs of a sponsorship being laid out over several years," Treat said. "It still hasn't been finalized or negotiated."

Still, the assumption is significant. Negotiations with a title sponsor (rumored to be health care provider Kaiser Permanente) have no doubt progressed since last August, when Willamette Week first turned up the possibility public funds will be used. Treat should have a much better idea of where things stand. Any public money used on the 750-bike system would be paid back, as sponsorship money flowed incrementally in over a number of years, and the arrangement would have to be approved by the Portland City Council.

Treat also mentioned we shouldn't expect news on the system any time soon. She's getting ready travel out of town and negotiations are ongoing.

"It could be a while," she said.

Treat, tapped to helm PBOT last summer, made a case that the system isn't just something Portland's implementing because of "peer pressure," as the Oregonian recently suggested.

The program will be a boon to both business and commuters in the downtown core, she said, and lunch hour trips workers wouldn't make by foot or transit will be accessible and easy with the system's clunky, tank-like fleet. The PBOT director is a daily bicycle commuter, but said she'll use bike share to complete midday errands rather than her bike. She thinks other Portlanders will do the same.

As to commerce, "cyclists in general shop locally and shop often, and cyclists talk amongst themselves about bike-friendly businesses," Treat said. "It will generate buzz."

And she pointed out the system should be popular with tourists, though some Portland bike rental businesses fear exactly that. Bike share's also often seen as a boon for other public transit because it can act as a "last mile connector," whisking people from their bus stop to their homes or jobs.

Portland initially announced bike share would hit the streets in spring 2013, but had supposed companies bidding to set up the Portland system would come with sponsors in tow. They didn't, and Alta had just begun fundraising in spring 2013, according to Vice President Mia Birk. Sponsorship money has been tricky to come by.

PBOT currently projects it could have a system in place by this spring, but even that seems optimistic. Staffers estimate it will take six months to set the program up once we have the money.

One heartening factor: Treat's got plenty of experience with bike share. While working in Chicago, she awarded a contract for the city's 4,000-bike Divvy Bikes system (to Alta Bicycle Share, the Portland company that's also been tapped to do the job here). And she dealt with Capital Bikeshare while working for Washington, DC's transportation department. But both systems relied on federal funds to get up and running. Portland has only tapped $1.8 million in federal money, a fraction of the estimated $14.6 million needed to purchase the system and run it for five years.

"The way Portland is doing the bike share system is a 180-degree turn from the way Chicago did it," Treat said. "It was much simpler and easier to roll out.

"Like I mentioned before, these deals are complicated and they take excessive due diligence. It's not as simple as just ramping up a program."