The Seattle City Council voted on March 15, 2016, to buy the struggling Pronto bike-share program in a $1.4 million rescue.

Share story

The Seattle City Council voted 7-2 on Monday to buy the underperforming Pronto bike-share program to keep it from shutting down.

Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Tim Burgess opposed the move after the rest of the council rejected their idea to pursue a new public-private partnership for bike share rather than keeping Pronto alive. They called the takeover a risky investment.

Monday’s vote approved an ordinance releasing $1.4 million from the city’s budget to rescue Pronto, which launched in October 2014 under nonprofit ownership.

The program’s ridership and revenue have fallen short of expectations: Pronto had 142,846 trips and 3,000 members in its first year, rather than the 446,000 trips and 4,000 members that were projected. Documents in January revealed it to be insolvent.

High overhead costs and debt service on money borrowed to buy equipment are part of the picture. Pronto’s nonprofit stopped raising funds last year after city officials came calling about a takeover, its former executive director has said.

The existing program has 54 stations in Seattle — and 500 bikes, according to Pronto. But the city Department of Transportation, which asked the council for approval to purchase Pronto, intends to expand the system in 2017 to include many more stations and, possibly, some electric bikes.

Users pay $8 a day or $16 for three days to rent the bikes for unlimited 30-minute trips, returning them to any station. Annual memberships start at $85.

Proponents of the takeover, including Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, said owning Pronto will give the city more say in how the program is built out.

They called Monday’s move a modest investment to help provide people across the city with access to an environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

Pronto’s critics contend the program has struggled because Seattle is hilly and rainy, while proponents claim it will succeed if more stations are added, particularly near transit hubs like two light-rail stations opening Saturday.

“The problem has been execution, not that people won’t use it,” said Sharon Cowdery, a Pronto member who urged the council to purchase the program.

Cowdery, 50, lives in Belltown and rides Pronto bikes to the post office, the bank and meetings. She said she owns her own bikes but prefers not to use them for errands and commuting “because of the high rate of bike theft in Seattle.”

The council approved amendments to the Pronto purchase ordinance Monday requiring SDOT to better serve low-income populations and communities of color and to complete downtown bike-lane projects before growing the bike-share program.

Another amendment, sponsored by O’Brien, means Mayor Ed Murray and the council will select a bike-share operator to run the new version of Pronto, rather than SDOT Director Scott Kubly making that choice.

Kubly worked with bike-share networks through government posts in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and was acting president of Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share before coming to Seattle in 2014.

Pronto’s nonprofit contracted with Alta to operate the program when it launched. New York company Motivate bought Alta in late 2014 and now operates the program.

The Seattle Times early last month made a public-disclosure request for all communications from Kubly about Pronto, Alta and Motivate.

SDOT initially said it would provide the records on or about March 11, but has yet to provide them. It did provide some other records Monday.