Bikeshare program dead on arrival

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

A wholesale rejection of a proposed bikeshare program Key West City Commissioners have been seeking for more than a year evolved into a criticism of how the prospective bike vendors were scored as part of the request for proposals.

Commissioners voted 4-1 (Commissioners Clayton Lopez and Jimmy Weekley were absent) to reject all three of the bids that were submitted as part of the city’s request for proposals to implement a bikeshare program, where riders use a mobile phone app to rent a bike from a locked rack, ride to their destination and return it to another designated bike rack in that area. Of the three bids, Zagster, which operates approximately 170 bikeshare programs in 38 states, received the highest score, followed by Social Bicycles and Gotcha Bike.

Despite asking for a bikeshare program to be instituted in Key West as part of the city’s effort to reduce traffic congestion and a lack of public parking, the program outlined in the vendor bids did not match their expectations, according to three of the four present commissioners. The bikesharing program outlined by Zagster would install 40 rental sites in Key West and Stock Island with a total of 200 bicycles for rent. In an effort not to undercut the myriad bike rental companies already existing in Key West, the rental price would increase exponentially the longer the bike was not returned. The first hour would cost $3 but subsequent hours would be $15 each, as compared with a daily rate between $18 and $25 from most of the local bike shops. The idea is to encourage short-term/short duration rentals designed for transporting cyclists from Point A to Point B, not the leisurely rides taken by tourists.

But Mayor Craig Cates said the program would involve the city giving the winning bidder free access to city parking spaces and other public right of ways for the 40 bike stations. And Zagster is a major corporation, Cates said, not a small local company that he hoped would operate the bikeshare program.

“I think this has evolved into something way more than I originally thought we were going to have,” he said. “This should be much smaller and have the opportunity for local businesses to bid on this.”

The number two-ranked company, Social Bicycles, was a joint effort with a local company, Instabikes, which was operating a bikeshare program earlier this year using – without permission – the city’s public bike racks as their base of operations. Instabikes’ owners, Sean Blaise and Mandy Evans, were ordered to stop using the city’s public bike racks and they complied. When they offered to rent space on the public racks, city officials said the project had to be opened to other bidders since public property would be involved.

Other tourist-directed bike rental companies worried that the bikeshare program operator would, in effect, be subsidized by the city through the free use of public right of ways. Evan Haskell, owner of a local bike rental company, said that he welcomed competition but only on a level playing field.

“This would be a city-subsidized, outside corporation given 40 points of sale across the island, directly targeting my target market,” Haskell said.

The potential loss of 40 public parking spaces in a town where parking is perpetually at a premium, was unsettling to some commissioners. Parking Director John Wilkes said that each parking space produces between $8,000 and $10,000 a year in revenue, depending on its location.

“I was all for this until I saw it was giving away 40 parking places,” said Commissioner Billy Wardlow.

Commissioner Margaret Romero was uncomfortable with several aspects of the proposed contract. She singled out Key West Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator Chris Hamilton, although not naming him, saying the scoring of the three bidding companies looked like he was favoring Zagster because there was a 50-point spread between Zagster and Hamilton’s lowest-scored company, Gotcha Bikes.

“Right there I started to question whether or not there was any prejudice involved,” Romero said. “I am just not comfortable at all with what I saw on paper and my analysis of it.”

That angered Commissioner Sam Kaufman, who was the lone vote against rejecting the bids. He apologized to Hamilton for Romero’s inference.

“I take exception to besmirching a member of staff’s reputation by indicating there’s some prejudice. We are really lucky to have Chris Hamilton here working for the City of Key West,” Kaufman said.

Hamilton said he was tough on all three of the bidders and while he had the biggest point spread on the final scores, he submitted seven pages of written analysis explaining why he scored the companies as he did.

“I wasn’t giving out points just because a company showed up or because they were playing ball. I was allocating points very carefully and looking at the [request for proposal] criteria,” he said.

It is unclear what the next step is and whether a bikeshare program is dead on arrival or will be scaled back and presented again to the commission. Wardlow asked Hamilton to “go back to the drawing board” but there was no direction from the commission or city officials to do that.