Montreal’s transit agency may take over Bixi bike-sharing service

BIXI bikes in a stand. The Canadian Press Images / Francis Vachon

MONTREAL — The agency that operates Montreal’s bus and metro network may take over Bixi, but it wants nothing to do with the bike-sharing service’s deficit, the head of the Société de transport de Montréal says.

“It could be a natural fit, but there are a certain number of conditions we’re looking at — legal, operational conditions — and there’s a deficit at Bixi,” STM chair Michel Labrecque told reporters Wednesday.

“There’s no way the STM or its customers will pay that (deficit).”

In 2011, Bixi’s operational deficit for Montreal was $3.3 million. It was expected to be smaller in 2012 but Bixi has so far refused to say how its last Montreal season went. Its 2012 financial statements have not been disclosed.

Who will assume Bixi’s deficit if the STM takes over? “The mayor, Mr. (Michael) Applebaum, has indicated the city will,” Labrecque said.

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Bixi is controlled by the city of Montreal. With its international operations now up for sale, it’s unclear who will pay off the $32.25 million Bixi still owes on the $37-million loan the city gave it in 2010.

In the past, Montreal said no public money would be invested in Bixi, apart from the loan, which is being repaid, with interest. To finance Montreal, Bixi was to rely on sales of bike-sharing systems to other cities.

That changed this week when Montreal said it will spend $2.4 million to buy 100 Bixi bikes and add 1,750 bike-parking docks across Montreal, and contribute $245,000 in operating funds to Bixi.

The city said it switched gears because much of Bixi’s global arm is about to be sold and Montrealers want the network expanded.

Bixi has had financial difficulties and both the city’s auditor-general and the Quebec government complained that Montreal overstepped its powers by getting involved in a commercial enterprise.

Last week, The Gazette reported Procycle, a bike-maker based in Quebec’s Beauce region, is one of the bidders for Bixi’s global operations.

The city is still reviewing purchase offers for that part of the business, including contracts with New York City and Boston. The sell-off will not include Montreal, Longueuil, Westmount, Toronto, Ottawa or London, England.

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Labrecque said Canadian cities have “long-term agreements (with Bixi) and we’ll see how it will work.” The STM would not be responsible for London, he said.

Labrecque noted that Bixi and transit are already entwined in Montreal. The STM offers discounts to Opus card users who sign up for Bixi, and Bixi stations are often located near métro stations.

Many people use Bixi as an extension of the transit network — jumping on Bixis for the last kilometres home after getting off the métro, for example, Labrecque said. Bus ridership drops in some areas during Bixi season because so many commuters use the service instead of buses after getting off the métro.

In Montreal, Bixi is expected to start installing bike stations next week. Service is to begin on or before April 15.

Labrecque has been floated as a possible Montreal mayoralty candidate. “We’ll see,” he said when asked if he was interested. He was also non-committal when asked if he wanted to stay on at the STM after November’s election.

Labrecque lost his city council seat in Montreal’s last election but kept his STM job. He has been chair since January 2009.

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