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Could high-tech toilets save Toronto’s Bixi bikes?

Bixi Toronto is struggling to meets its debt payments to suppliers. Cyclists ride past a Bixi bicycle stand in Toronto, Ont. Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Toronto city councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong wants to save the city's struggling bike-sharing program by redirecting millions earmarked for a far different purpose – building high-tech toilets.

Mr. Minnan-Wong, chair of the city's public works committee, says the biggest hurdle to keeping Bixi bikes on the road is finding a way to ease its debt burden – a $3.9-million loan that is guaranteed by the city. Earlier this year, city staff warned that Bixi Toronto Inc., the operator of the program, could not meet its debt payments and owed about $1-million to suppliers. On Wednesday, Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee is expected to consider the fate of the troubled program and Mr. Minnan-Wong, a committee member, plans to make his novel pitch to salvage the bike network.

"You've got to find creative solutions when there is no money around," Mr. Minnan-Wong explained Tuesday. "The future of Bixi in its current arrangement is grim."

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Here is where the proposed public washrooms come into the picture. Under former mayor David Miller, Toronto inked a 20-year deal with Astral Media Inc. to provide "street furniture" such as bus shelters and garbage cans in return for advertising rights. Included in that deal was the construction of 20 standalone automated public toilets, billed as the first of their kind in North America.

Six years into that deal, the city has opened just two of the cutting-edge loos, one at Queen's Quay and the other at Woodbine Beach. The units, which measure three square metres and require water, sewer and power, have been difficult to place, according to a staff report issued last year. They also cost about $450,000 each, meaning the remaining 18 units represent about $8-million in value under the Astral deal.

Mr. Minnan-Wong said that since the public washrooms have been so difficult to place, shifting the money over to Bixi would be an "elegant solution," to two problems.

It's not clear how many of his council colleagues will see it that way. On one side is Mr. Ford who believes the city has no business in the bike-sharing program and declaring it a "failure" that should be dissolved.

On the other are several councillors who point out that other cities with similar programs are involved in their operation and say Toronto should play a bigger role. Some are suggesting a city agency such as the Toronto Transit Commission or the Parking Authority could be called upon to operate Bixi.

A staff report to be considered by executive Wednesday states that six firms responded to a request for information on the bike-share program issued by the city this spring, but none was of the view that the system could operate without some subsidy from the city.

Options for restructuring the program as a way to reduce the city's financial risk are contained in a confidential section of the staff report. The report recommends staff report back to executive on possible strategies for saving BIXI in October.

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Ron Hutchinson, Astral's senior vice-president of real estate, said his firm is willing to discuss the idea of using the washroom funds for another purpose, but cautions the plan is still in its early stages.

Under its deal with the city, there are provisions to reconsider plans at the 10-year mark, Mr. Hutchinson said. The Bixi plan would require moving that date forward.

"Basically we've said we are happy to have that conversation," he said.

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