Hamilton council votes not to fund bike share program, will store the bikes instead
Some councillors say city doesn't have the money, others say program is too valuable to lose
Hamilton city council has narrowly voted down spending $400,000 to keep the city's SoBi bike program going until the end of the year, which means the service will end on June 1.
After a 15-hour meeting, council voted against spending money from the capital budgets of three lower-city wards to save the popular program after Uber pulled out of the contract. Eight councillors were in favour, eight were opposed, and based on the city's procedural rules, a tie vote fails.
Council then voted to put the bikes and stations in storage, but to still look for a third-party operator.
Nrinder Nann, Ward 3 (central lower city) moved the motion to fund the program until the end of the year, and that motion hit the floor around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday night. The meeting started at 9:30 a.m. that morning, and councillors debated the issue until after midnight.
Sam Merulla, Ward 4 (east end) councillor, was among those who voted against it. Council agreed to the program in the understanding that "it would never cost us a cent." Voting to spend $400,000 now would be "deceiving the public."
"At no time were we informed that if this thing goes south, we'll come back to the general levy," he said. "If that was the case, we never would have started the program."
Chad Collins, Ward 5 (Centennial), said council was too willing to spend money right now, especially when the city is facing a deficit of tens of millions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said council was "fiscally leaderless."
"It's almost become a hallmark of this council to spend money we don't have."
Nann, meanwhile, argued that the program was too valuable to lose.
"We've been forced into this situation," Nann said, "and we have a responsibility as a municipal government to serve our people."
"If we don't act today, we risk losing SoBi for good. This isn't something we can afford to lose."
There are 26,000 Hamilton residents who use the SoBi bike share program, and 600 new users have signed up since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Nann likened it to filling every seat in Tim Hortons Field and then some.
The program also has an initiative called Everyone Rides, which offers accessible three-wheeled bikes and serves people with low incomes.
The city was caught by surprise this month when it learned that Uber would walk away from Hamilton's bike share program on June 1.
The city bought the bikes and stations with a one-time Metrolinx grant and signed a contract with the Brooklyn-based Social Bicycles LLC to operate the program. Social Bicycles enlisted Hamilton Bike Share to oversee local operations, which launched in 2015.
In 2018, Social Bicycles LLC became Jump Mobility, and Uber bought Jump the same year. This month, Jump was acquired by Lime, a company that runs e-scooter programs in numerous cities. Uber and the city had just signed a one-year agreement in February, but on May 15, the company — using Social Bicycles LLC letterhead — wrote the city saying it would pull out on June 1.
City lawyers are pressuring Uber to fulfil its contract. Councillors also voted to still pursue a third-party operator, although councillors who voted for Nann's motion were visibly annoyed.
Nann said council took away a sustainable transportation option for 26,000 people.
"I hope everybody sleeps well tonight," she said.
How they voted
Who voted to fund SoBi until the end of the year
Mayor Fred Eisenberger, Maureen Wilson (Ward 1), Jason Farr (2), Nrinder Nann (3), John-Paul Danko (8), Brad Clark (9), Maria Pearson (10), Arlene VanderBeek (13).
Who was opposed
Sam Merulla (4), Chad Collins (5), Tom Jackson (6), Esther Pauls (7), Brenda Johnson (11), Lloyd Ferguson (12), Terry Whitehead (14), Judi Partridge (15).