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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Fair
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Bike sharing comes to Madison
City needs to contribute $300,000 to the cause
Clear: 'Trek made us an offer we shouldn't refuse.'
Clear: 'Trek made us an offer we shouldn't refuse.'

Starting in May, Madison could have a full-blown bike-sharing program, similar to those in Denver and European cities. But even in bike-friendly Madison, the program is proving controversial.

B-cycle is a partnership of three companies: Trek, the Innovation Center at Humana, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky. It has programs in Denver, Chicago and Hawaii and is now branching out to four other cities, including Madison.

The program will require a $100,000 city subsidy for three years. This amount was approved by the Board of Estimates on Monday and now heads to a full Common Council vote on Feb. 1.

But some wonder whether the city should be giving $300,000 to a private company without even putting the project out to bid.

"It just sort of seems like it came out of nowhere," says Ald. Marsha Rummel, noting that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz took a bike-industry-sponsored junket to Europe last year. "I'm not saying there was anything untoward with a bike trip to Europe, but all of a sudden, a contract is awarded. You've got to question that."

Trek and its partners are footing most of the bill. "We're putting in a million dollars up front," says Trek spokesman Eric Bjorling. "We really anticipate losing money. But Madison being our hometown, bike sharing is something we feel strongly about."

In Madison, the program will have 35 stations with a total of 350 bicycles. Users can buy a daily, weekly or annual pass, using a credit or debit card. Then they simply grab a bicycle at one of the stations and return it to any other station. The fee structure and station locations have not yet been determined.

According to Bjorling, B-cycle has been successful in Denver over the past two years, where the bikes have been checked out 100,000 times and driven 211,000 miles.

"Bike sharing is one of the hallmarks of a great city," he says. "It's still a new concept to a lot of people. They just have to experience it."

Ald. Mark Clear, Common Council president, supports the deal. "Trek made us an offer we shouldn't refuse, to basically fund all of the infrastructure," he says. "It's a little like the federal government offering $800 million for a train."

The city subsidy, if approved, would help defer operational costs, cover bike maintenance, and make sure the bikes are evenly distributed. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz sees the program as an economic development effort, to help attract residents and create jobs.

"All the cities we compete with for talent are doing this," he says, mentioning Minneapolis, Denver and Portland. "It'll also be an amenity that visitors will like. Third, Trek is a major employer. If we can help them learn how to produce and market this new product, it means potentially a lot of jobs for the region."

Gubernatorial detente

It didn't have quite the gravity of President Richard Nixon meeting Mao Zedong in China. But on Martin Luther King Day, Mayor Dave met with Gov. Scott Walker for the first time.

Cieslewicz had been trying to meet with Walker since the governor was elected last November, only to have his overtures ignored (see, 1/13/2011). But after Isthmus asked the governor's office for comment on this snub, Walker invited the mayor to the Capitol for a chat.

"It was a good meeting," Cieslewicz says. "What I told him was I was not going to hold back on my criticism of his policies when I disagreed with him, when I felt it was bad policy for Madison. But I would keep the criticism to policy and not get personal."

Cieslewicz asked for an "open-door policy," whereby the governor would return phone calls within a day or two. "Even though we're on different political planets, I hope we can find ways to work together on at least some things. He agreed to all of that."

Whether or not Cieslewicz wins reelection this spring, state cuts to municipal revenue seem likely, as the governor tries to close a $3 billion deficit while creating new tax breaks for business. Cieslewicz argued for keeping those revenue streams, but he also had a backup pitch.

"If there are going to be cuts, I asked him as a supporter of local control to allow Madison to deal with those cuts in the way Madisonians want them to be addressed," he says. "If all you do is cut state aid and then come down hard on levy limits, then you're forcing service cuts."

Overture looks ahead

On Dec. 29, six private donors paid $15 million to settle the Overture Center's more than $28 million debt.

"It was a great relief, but more importantly signaled the beginning of all the transition work that needs to be done," says Linda Baldwin, Isthmus' associate publisher and chair of the 201 State Foundation, Overture's fundraising arm.

The 201 State Foundation is now preparing to take over the arts center's ownership and management. At a meeting Tuesday night, it renamed itself the Overture Center Foundation and added nine more members: former Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, former Wisconsin State Journal publisher Jim Burgess, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Jim Imhoff, Exact Sciences Corp. president Kevin Conroy, Dean Health Systems president Lon Sprecher, former state Department of Workforce Development Secretary Roberta Gassman, current State Journal publisher Bill Johnston, Christensen Associates CEO Dianne Christensen and UW-Madison music professor Richard Davis.

The new members are heavily weighted toward fundraisers, which some council members objected to when the restructuring was debated last year. But Mayor Cieslewicz, who'll soon announce three appointees to the 21-member board, says his picks "will bring different skill sets than fundraisers."

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