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Council Addresses Ridesharing Regulations Proposed by Petition

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
A yard sign off Chicon Street shows support for keeping ridesharing company Lyft in Austin.

The Austin City Council continued discussing regulations for ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber at its work session Tuesday, in response to a petition that was validated Monday by the city clerk's office. 

The petition, filed by a political action committee (PAC) called Ridesharing Works for Austin, proposes regulations for ride-hailing companies less restrictive than those that some council members are proposing, which would require fingerprint-based background checks for drivers, among other things. The council can either decide to accept the rules called for in the petition, or to send the proposed regulations to voters for a city-wide election in May.

The PAC received $20,000 in funding from Uber and Lyft, which it used to hire people to collect petition signatures. While council can approve or vote down the ordinance, they can't change the language of the ordinance:

“Shall the City Code be amended to repeal Ordinance No. 20151217-075 regulating Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) and codify TNC rules contained in Ordinance No. 20141016-038, with the addition of an annual fee equal to 1% of the TNCs’ gross revenue, an application process, and a process for notification and resolution of violations.” 

In Tuesday's discussion, District 6 Council member Don Zimmerman said he leans toward adopting the PAC's proposed regulations, if only to avoid the cost of a city-wide election.

“We’ve interfered with a successful business model," Zimmerman told his colleagues. "Now we’re faced with an expensive election to allow the voters to say, 'No, city council. We did not ask you to work on this, and we do not like what you did.'”

The Austin City Council's December ordinance would have made fingerprint-based background checks all-but-mandatory for ridesharing drivers, but council has since softened its stance on that issue.

Last week, Mayor Steve Adler spearheaded a move to offer incentives to drivers who undergo the background checks. Adler and other council members envision the effort – which gives a "Thumbs Up!" badge to verified drivers – as an alternative to a May referendum, which wouldn't feature requirements or incentives for drivers who get fingerprinted and wouldn't require drivers to identify themselves as Uber or Lyft drivers.

“I don’t want to vote for mandatory now. I didn’t want to vote for it in December," Adler told his colleagues Tuesday. "And my reason for that is that what we’re hearing from our public safety people is that having rideshare companies at scale in our city contributes to safety in our city cause it helps take drunk drivers off the road and that safety issue weighs heavily with me.”

Zimmerman suggested yesterday that the council accept the petition-proposed ordinance, allowing the city to avoid an estimated $800,000 in costs associated with the vote. 

But Council Member Delia Garza balked at the idea of accepting the ordinance, likening the petition to paying for favorable regulation. 

“So, what precedent do we set here by just accepting that ordinance? We set the precedent, you know what it costs to buy your own regulation in Austin, Texas? $30,000," she said. "So, what’s next? Samsung’s going to start a petition because they don’t like their Austin Energy rates?”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who joined Adler at the Thumbs Up! event last week, initially proposed the December regulations and echoed the mayor's public safety concerns yesterday. 

“It is our job and our responsibility to make a determination about public safety,” Kitchen said. “And that’s what this has all been about, from my perspective.”

Kitchen is the target of another petition by another PAC, Austin4All, which demands the Council member be recalled, based on her leading the charge for tightening the TNC regulations. Austin4All sent out a press release Monday saying they'd collected more than the required number of signatures on the recall petition, but as of Tuesday they'd still not filed the necessary paperwork with the city to validate the signatures. The mayor and all but two council members (Zimmerman and District 8's Ellen Troxclair) attended a news conference Monday to offer Kitchen their support.

The council will hear testimony on the ordinance this Thursday, with a vote planned for next week. 

This post has been updated throughout.

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