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Why was Seattle denied federal funds to expand bike sharing?

Bob Pishue with the Washington Policy Center thinks Seattle didn't calculate convincing cost benefits in its 2015 TIGER grant application. (AP)

The City of Seattle was recently denied a grant it hoped would fund an expansion of the local bike-share service. Now, a Washington think tank is asking why, and says the city’s grant application doesn’t add up.

“The city tried to get about $10 million from the feds to expand Pronto bike share,” said Bob Pishue with the Washington Policy Center. “As part of this they sent in a cost-benefit analysis. The feds said ‘no.'”

Pishue explained a recent post on the center’s website that digs into Seattle’s TIGER grant rejection on KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show.

“As we know, taxes are high in Seattle,” he said. “The mayor has come out and said homelessness is a crisis, and here public officials are looking to spend millions and millions on bike sharing.”

Pishue is the director of the Center of Transportation at the Washington Policy Center; a politically right-leaning think tank that promotes free-market solutions.

Seattle’s 2015 TIGER grant application totaled $25 million and was partly slated to construct a bridge over I-5 connecting communities in Northgate. It would have funded street and sidewalk improvements around that bridge. The city wanted to use the remaining grant funds to expand the Pronto bike share service &#8212 from 50 to 300 stations &#8212 and to add electric bikes to the fleet. Pronto’s system currently has 50 stations with about 500 bikes.

Pishue isn’t quite sure why Seattle was denied the grant. He can speculate, however. He said he is still looking through Seattle’s application, but so far, he believes the numbers and figures the city submitted in its application were off.

“Looking at the numbers, they just seem a little exaggerated,” Pishue said. “Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle Department of Transportation planned to spend $93 million on bike sharing over 20 years, but would receive over $300 million in benefits … over $200 million of that comes from healthcare savings.”

The city calculated healthcare savings would total $222,721,879 over 20 years. It was the largest assumption it made. A casual user of the system, who is also “physically inactive,” would receive about $560 in health savings, the city estimates. If they use the services 2.2 times, that’s more than $250 in medical savings per trip, according to Pishue.

Another financial benefit, emissions reduction, totaled 2,421,933. Vehicle crash reduction was $18,457,506. Travel cost savings was $103,049,370.

Seattle’s assumption: Biking makes people healthier, and healthier people spend less on healthcare cost. The city took into account annual and casual bike share users, and factored in the percentage of inactive adults in society, how many are shifting from other forms of transportation, and more.

“What I noticed is that the city didn’t calculate that half of the new bikes they plan are electronic bikes,” Pishue said. “So they assume that electronic bike riders get the same benefits as regular bike users.”

Dori noted that recent data released by Pronto also shows that most of the trips on the bikes are taken in order to coast downhill, and that they are taken on fair weather days &#8212 not consistently throughout the year. For Dori, a frequent critic of city government, he suspects foul play.

“That does sound like an attempt to criminally defraud tax payers,” he said. “That is such a ludicrous assertion on their part, and calculation, I’m wondering if that is even legal to use numbers like that and try to scam federal taxpayers.”

This year’s TIGER grant is the seventh time it has been awarded to a range of projects across America. The grant (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) began in 2009 and aims to fund transportation projects with an economic angle. For example, in 2015, Tacoma got $15 million in a TIGER grant to double the size of its streetcar system, primarily between medical, educational and an employment centers.

According to The Seattle Times, Seattle was also denied a TIGER grant for the Northgate project in 2014.

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