Austin City Council: Clearing up the ridesharing battle confusion

Back in December, city council passed an ordinance the ridesharing community did not like.
Companies like Uber and Lyft have said if fingerprint background checks for drivers became mandatory they would pack their bags and leave Austin.  Council passed the ordinance but the fingerprinting part was left unfinished.
So whether or not fingerprinting would have become mandatory or not -- we'll never know -- because the people took matters into their own hands.

The group "Ridesharing Works For Austin" delivered more than 26,000 signatures to the city clerk's office in support of a ridesharing ordinance that would keep Uber and Lyft here.
Now that those petition signatures have been validated, city council only has 2 choices: adopt the ordinance Ridesharing Works came up with which is basically the same one former Mayor Lee Leffingwell's council passed -- with a few tweaks here and there.
Or let the voters decide if that's what they want in a May 7th election.
Mayor Steve Adler says that election has a price tag of $500,000-$800,000.

But as the mayor put it this week during a city council work session, he doesn't like just having 2 options.

"The variable that we have that we can control is 'Do we pass our own ordinance other than the December ordinance?  That's within our control," Adler said during a work session this week.

Let's rewind a little bit.  Last week city council approved a plan the mayor came up with called "Thumbs Up Austin."

It's optional -- a way to incentivize ridesharing drivers to get fingerprinted.  If they do it, they can use the Thumbs Up badge to market themselves as a safer option for riders.

Thumbs Up drivers will also get special access from the city like being able to get closer to big events like SXSW and ACL.

But the mayor is afraid if voters decide the Ridesharing Works ordinance is the way to go, the city charter will forbid the city from making any changes to the ordinance for 2 years -- and he's afraid it also might kill his Thumbs Up idea too.

So now the mayor is proposing a separate ordinance that still allows the city to quote "innovate" with programs like the Thumbs Up badge.  Adler says fingerprinting won't be a requirement and it will allow the city to financially reward drivers who participate in that program.

With the public testimony, what the mayor wants to know is if people like the idea of the "innovation" ordinance.

Let's say hypothetically for a minute that next week Austin City Council decides the "Austin Innovation" idea is better than the ordinance they passed back in December.

So then that will stay in effect until at least the May 7th election when voters will be faced with a yes or no question: "Do you support the Ridesharing Works petition?"

Thursday, People weighed in on the options presented to council; whether they want council members to adopt the "ride sharing works" ordinance or put the issue on the ballot and let voters decide.

20 speakers voiced their concerns about the ride sharing ordinance during the one-hour meeting. 

The majority of speakers said they would like to see the ride sharing initiative on the ballot in May.

Some said they feel that the vote allows Austin citizens to make a decision rather than letting Uber and Lyft influence the laws in Austin.

Others feel it would be better to adopt the ride sharing works ordinance so that Uber and Lyft can continue to operate in the city without finger-print background checks.

Mayor Steve Adler said he wants to make sure regulations are fair for all ride sharing companies and other transportation methods, but he doesn't want regulations to restrict businesses from operating.

Another idea brought up at the meeting was to de-regulate other transportation options, such as cabs or black car services, so that they have a level playing field to compete against ride sharing companies.

"I feel it's fine the way it is. I feel that the real problem is the other companies are so regulated, like the taxi companies and the black car services, are so regulated that Uber and Lyft have come in and swept the nation and taken their business. So they're going to have to be deregulated so that they can compete, but as far as the way they're operating now, nobody has a problem with it. Everybody that uses it loves it. Everybody that drives for them loves it," said Demetra Lee who drives for Lyft.

"If this doesn't go to a vote, we are effectively allowing large, very powerful corporations to dictate policy and regulation within our city. I mentioned when I spoke that I've lived in this city my entire life. There's not a whole lot of people who do anymore. And that goes against everything that really is the zeitgeist of Austin," Brian Standard, who drives for both Uber and Lyft, said.

There is one more public comment period next Thursday. Anyone who spoke Thursday will not be able to speak at that meeting.

After that City Council is expected to vote on whether to put the ride sharing works ordinance on the ballot with the mayor's innovation idea as a backup.

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