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Legislature May Pass Statewide Ride-Hailing Law, Nullify City Ordinances

Alexander Torrenegra | http://bit.ly/2fERshU

Twenty cities including San Antonio regulate ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. No two have the same rules, but that would change under bills circulating in the Texas House and Senate. 

“Well, the cities don’t really have any authority here,” says Sen. Robert Nichols.

He is the author of a billthat creates a statewide regulation for ride hailing companies.  He says allowing every city to have it’s own ordinance is a burden on companies.

“I had the mayor of Ft. Worth in my office a couple weeks ago, she said there were 40 plus cities adjacent to Ft. Worth,” says Nichols.

One in four Uber trips ends in a city other than where it began, says Uber’s Trevor Theunissen. 

“A driver who is authorized to pick up in the city of Ft Worth, they  can drop off in downtown Dallas but can’t pick up unless they meet the requirements of the city of Dallas as well,” says Theunissen.

Uber is pushing hard for one uniform statewide law, something it has in 37 other states. Uber and Lyft have suspended operation in five Texas cities at one time or another as a result of regulations the companies disliked. That includes San Antonio.

Credit Paul Flahive
Taxicab drivers quietly protest extending a deal between city of San Antonio and Ride Hailing operators last December.

The city of San Antonio struck a deal more than a year ago to bring the companies back. It agreed to make the fingerprinting of drivers voluntary, though it’s mandatory for taxi company drivers.

Fingerprinting was such a big deal in Austin that when the city made it mandatory, Uber spent more than $8 million on a referendum campaign to overturn the decision. It was called Proposition 1.  The companies lost handily, and they left Austin.

“The public decided that that’s what they wanted. They voted on it and it wasn’t a close vote,” says Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen.

Kitchen says several ride hailing companies are willing to abide by the new law and now the city has 8,000 fingerprinted drivers. She says they have proven you don’t have to pick between public safety and having app-based transportation companies.  

“You know what’s really happening here is you taking one service provider and treating them differently than other service providers,” says Kitchen.

The distinction between taxi companies and ride hailing businesses is at the center of the debate for many. For Kitchen, taxis also operate across multiple municipalities. Cities heavily regulate cabs and require them to be fingerprinted. 

“Do I think cities should regulate taxis? Yes, I do,” says Sen. Nichols.

Nichols says ride hailing companies are different -  they don’t deal in cash and rides are prearranged by an  app that keeps a lot of information about their drivers and its passengers.

“And then they can give you a picture of the person that's gonna pick you up, identification of the car, the license plate number. And its recorded where you're picked up and where you're taken, and all that kinda stuff. I felt like it was not needed,” says Nichols.

He asks why if we are worried about Uber drivers are we not worried about pizza drivers

“Somebody--you have no idea--comes to your home. You open your door, to your home, and you hand them cash,” he says.

But Texas Municipal League head Bennet Sandlin is quick to point out there are lots of jobs that require fingerprinting.

“The the list of things the state requires fingerprinting for is long and some people might say bizarre: speech language and pathologists have to be fingerprinted, audiologists have to be fingerprinted,” he says.

Sandlin says the Muncipal League generally pushes back against bills that compromise local control, but most mayors would support Nichols' bill it if the state made the fingerprinting of drivers mandatory.

Uber and Lyft say their third-party background checks are easier and quicker for drivers and they are just as good as a fingerprint check. San Antonio Police agreed with Uber when the city negotiated a deal last year.

“About 90 percent of the proposed state law aligns with our local agreement with the companies,” says city of San Antonio Director of Government & Public Affairs Jeff Coyle.

He says the city wants Uber and Lyft to continue promoting voluntary fingerprinting, which neither bill would require.   

The House and Senate bills will also reduce the licensing fees for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hail operators dramatically.  Currently they pay the city of San Antonio alone a minimum of $10,000 per company, per year. Under the Senate Bill they would pay nothing. Under the House Bill they would pay $5,000 annually to the state.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org