The Big Bike Bailout

Records show the city may spend millions to finance Portland's Bike Share—and leave out many neighborhoods.

When the Portland City Council accepted a $2 million federal grant to start a bike-share program in 2011, it did so on one condition: No city money would help pay for it.

Instead, the council insisted, the company that ran the bike-share program would have to find any additional money needed to get the program rolling.

At the time, several local leaders voiced objections to the bike-share program because it served mostly the affluent central city and didn't reach poorer neighborhoods in North and East Portland.

But documents obtained by WW show city transportation officials are discussing reversing that plan and using  city money to finance as much as $4.6 million of the start-up costs faced by the private vendor, Portland-based Alta Bike Share.

The documents also indicate fears about the exclusivity of the program may be justified: Preliminary maps show bike-share stations will be concentrated in downtown and close-in East Portland, cutting out many low-income neighborhoods.

Nearly all of those sites are in downtown, Northwest Portland and the inner east side, with a few outliers along North Williams Avenue and in the South Waterfront. 

The easternmost station on the map is at Northeast 22nd Avenue and Broadway. 

City Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the Transportation Bureau, says he's taking a close look at all bike-share plans. "I haven't signed off on anything yet," he says, "and if it takes some time to get it right, it'll take some time."

Mia Birk, vice president of Alta, says Portland's bike share "will expand to other neighborhoods, as has happened in many other cities."

Alta and the city's Bureau of Transportation have spent the spring and summer pitching potential sponsors for the program.

The price of sponsorship: $1.25 million a year to have a company's logo emblazoned on 750 bike-share cycles.

Bureau officials say they're optimistic about landing their title sponsor soon—they won't say who it is, but documents and sources suggest it might be the health insurer Kaiser Permanente. 

But an internal memo says even if Alta finds a corporate sponsor, the money will arrive so incrementally that the bike-share program will need a loan from the city to launch by its planned start in spring 2014.

"We need the money to buy the system up front," says Dan Bower, manager of the bureau's active transportation division. "This is not a bad investment at all—especially for a transportation system.” 


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