I guess it wouldn't be Chicago without allegations of impropriety...
Last week, an Oregon-based vendor was selected to provide the infrastructure, equipment, and management assets for Chicago's new bike share program. I commented on the benefits of having an additional 3,000 bikes available for the short-term transportation needs of residents and visitors in a post this past Wednesday.
Yesterday, an article appeared in the Sun Times alleging questionable practices and conflicts of interest from a local businessman whose bid was not selected. Are these allegations credible or is it just a list of excuses from a sore loser?
At stake is a $21 million dollar contract involving $18 million in Federal air quality mitigation funds and $3 million in local taxpayer dollars. It's a big win for Alta Bicycle Share and a big loss for both Bike Chicago and I-GO, the bidders who were not selected. But was the deck stacked in Alta's favor?
According to the Sun Times report, Josh Squire, CEO of Bike Chicago, has issues with the involvement of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein and his deputy, Scott Kubly. Both worked together in Washington, DC and had previously awarded Alta a no-bid contract for DC's bike share program. They were allegedly seated with Alta's CEO at a dinner for the Active Transportation Alliance after the bids were formally submitted.
Klein did not serve on the board that selected the winning proposal, but did hand pick the board's members, according to the Sun Times report. He also received email cc's throughout the bidding competition.
Klein was appointed to his position in Chicago on May 16, 2011. In early 2011, he was paid to review Alta's "request for proposal" for New York City's bike share program. Alta was awarded the NYC contract in early September 2011 (the original RFP came in November 2010).
On September 21, 2011, the City of Chicago issued a "request for proposal" for its own bike share program with a deadline of October 25th. According to Squire's allegations, the city cancelled this bid request after receiving three bids and issued a different RFP around December 12, 2011 with a new deadline of January 5, 2012. The three original bids were never released to the public. None of the three bidders was given an explanation for the cancellation.
A similar situation occurred with an RFP for a bike share program in 2007. After receiving only two proposals - neither of which came from Josh Squire and Bike Chicago - the City determined that a cost of $5 million for a 1,500-bike system was not in the budget. The bid was cancelled.
The Sun Times article offers the City's response to each and every allegation and I encourage everyone to read it. All alleged impropriety was denied.
While I realize each of us has his or her own perception of City Hall, I caution everyone to reserve judgment until more information becomes known. If an impartial body - like a review board or the State's Attorney General - finds enough merit in the allegation, an investigation into Squire's accusations will be opened. Until then, this is all just conjecture.
I'm going to try to avoid weighing in on this one way or another as I only have as much information as has been reported or is easily searched online. It should be noted that Squire's company - Bike and Roll Chicago - operates its bike rental business from locations leased from both the Park District and the City of Chicago and was awarded its franchises either through a competitive bid or no-bid process.
I will also point out that since bike share programs of this scale are relatively new in the US, there is still a significant learning curve for all involved. Minneapolis only came on board in June 2010, DC in September 2010, and Boston in late spring 2011, while NYC has yet to launch. Each successive city has the opportunity to benefit from the successes and failures of those that launched before it. Chicago should be no exception.
As with anything political, only the insiders know what was discussed, when it was discussed, and how it impacted the decision-making process. We must all hope that the final decision benefits the taxpayer and the intended user and not the interests of a select few. Without the merits of the non-winning proposals publicized, it is difficult to say if Alta offered the public the best solution. I can only presume that on balance, it did.
The controversy surrounding this issue has the potential to negatively alter public opinion and reverse the gains made on behalf of City cyclists. There are already enough critics of bicycling infrastructure investment, as well as a large percentage of motorists who do not want to share the road with bicycles. The last thing the bicycling community needs is a scandal that will once again conflate bicycling with illegal activity.
I believe in the benefits of bicycling. From less traffic congestion to fewer vehicle emissions, more trips by bike benefits everyone, whether they choose to ride or not. As far as personal health goes, riding a bike wards off metabolic syndrome - heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity - and encourages physical fitness. Bicycling should be actively encouraged by providing safe places for everyone to ride and greater access to bicycles. Commissioner Klein is doing that.
At a time when bicycling is fighting for its priority in public policy, we all need to remain focused on the big picture. The Active Transportation Alliance needs your support over the next 100 days to continue standing up for cycling.
I hope Josh Squire understands everything that is at stake by pursuing remediation for his allegations. As I've said before, bicycling is bigger than any single cyclist and it belongs to all cyclists. We can't afford to let one man's desire to win - at whatever cost - make losers out of the rest of us. Bicycling is too important to Chicago.
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Keep riding and be safe!