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City Council narrowly approved a first-of-its-kind agreement Thursday afternoon that will bring rideshare back to San Antonio. The agreement requires Lyft to provide passengers with the ability to see whether drivers have taken an optional 10-fingerprint background check with the City in addition to the standard third-party checks already required by companies like Lyft and Uber.
Lyft has already signed an agreement and Uber has submitted its own that is currently under review by City staff.
Lyft Public Policy Manager April Mims said she’ll be taking the agreement back to Lyft headquarters in California to work out the technical details that will be required and the ride-booking platform will re-launch in San Antonio soon. Mims was unable to estimate when that would be.
After hours of passionate public and Council debate, the operating agreement passed with a 6-5 vote, illustrating Council members’ deeply divided views on the issue.
“(This is) a big step forward for our community because we’ve developed an innovative agreement that can be a model for expanding choice and utilizing technology to provide better and more information for consumers,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said. “We are saying – loudly – that San Antonio is open for business,”
Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh who presented the City-staff approved agreement to Council, said giving drivers the option of undergoing the so-called 10-print check would “improve their own marketability and provide choices for riders.” There has been a growing movement in the San Antonio Community to change the local ordinance approved in March that rideshare companies found too “onerous” to continue to operate – specifically, its requirement that all drivers undergo a 10-print check.
Opponents of the deal – including representatives of the traditional taxi and limousine industry, Council members Mike Gallagher (D10), Ray Lopez (D6), Cris Medina (D7), Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Rebecca Viagran (D3) – said that consumer choice should not outweigh public safety.
“Making public safety optional is not an option for me,” Viagran said before casting her vote against the agreement.
Because third-party checks are based on documents that can be falsified, argued National Cab owner Robert Gonzales, fingerprint checks are inherently more effective.
“It’s going to come back to haunt you,” Gonzales told City Council. “Y’all are going to have blood on your hands.”
San Antonio Police Department Chief Anthony Treviño said he does not think the agreement jeopardizes public safety or puts unnecessary strain on ground transportation units, which will be responsible for performing random checks to make sure drivers aren’t dishonest about whether they’ve taken the 10-print check and random vehicle inspections.
Chief Treviño admitted that 10-print checks are more reliable in terms of identification, but that an argument can also be made for the third-party checks that have county-specific results.
“The distinctive difference between the two is really that (track back) feature,” he said. When a driver gets arrested, SAPD can immediately alert the company they’re driving for. Regardless, he said, “if we’re going to look at continuing to change our ordinances, we have to have a baseline to operate from.”
Neither Lyft nor Uber applied to operate in San Antonio under the ordinance that took effect on April 1. The nine-month agreements will start once Lyft resumes operation in San Antonio. Uber’s agreement – or any other Transportation Network Company (TNC) willing to agree to the City’s terms – would also start when it relaunches.
“We’re not voting for perfect today,” said Councilmember Joe Krier (D9), who acknowledged that technologic advancements will continue to change industries and ordinances throughout the nation, including San Antonio.
“I approach this industry generally from an almost Libertarian point of view,” said Krier before casting his vote to approve the deal. “If I had my way, we’d do away with most of the regulations … to let consumers make choices. The government can not protect everybody from everything.”
The agreement stipulates that users will be able to look at the driver’s profile and see if they’ve gone through an additional City background check that uses 10-fingerprint identification. From there, the passenger can choose whether to cancel the ride and wait to find a driver that has taken the additional steps. All drivers are required to go through Lyft’s third-party background check before picking up fares, which includes local and state databases.
Other than the new profile feature and the ability of TNCs to now pick up passengers from the airport (for a $1 fee), the agreement follows regulations outlined in the existing local ordinance. Lyft will be required to pay a $18,750 permitting fee for the nine-month agreement, an amount pro-rated from ordinance’s fee of $25,000 per year, and continue to follow insurance, vehicle inspection, and its zero-tolerance drug policy.
The 10-print checks cost $18 a piece, Walsh said, and will be covered by the permitting fee.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Tech Bloc Chairman Lew Moorman. Members of the nonprofit technology industry advocacy organization worked closely with City and rideshare company representatives to come to the agreement. “The public safety issues are real ones to consider – completely legitimate, all the Council members should be talking about it. But we wanted to get the facts out there.”
Lyft and Uber are not members or sponsors of Tech Bloc, but the group has taken on rideshare’s cause in San Antonio as it’s an amentity many in the tech industry and beyond want to be able to offer to prospective businesses and employees.
“We are citizens. We are not associated with Uber and Lyft. None of us have investments with them … we have nothing to gain except our City (having) more services,” Moorman said. “But our employees want them, our communities want them. Every ‘no’ that I heard today had a direct affiliation with the taxi industry. Not to say that they aren’t important citizen voices, but they also are, in my mind, conflicted.”
Brad Parscale, one of Tech Bloc’s founding members, said that Uber representatives wanted to change some of the technical language in its own operating agreement compared to Lyft’s because its platform doesn’t have a driver profile feature. Parscale and Mayor Taylor separately confirmed that both the City and Uber are eager to come to an agreement soon and talks are ongoing.
The current TNC ordinance and the operation agreement both represent regulations for rideshare companies that are significantly more relaxed than those for other vehicles for hire outlined in Chapter 33 of San Antonio’s Municipal Code. Taxi drivers have to pay for their 10-print background check, vehicle inspections, driver training, and there are limits for how many taxis and limousines can obtain a permit.
Many Council members, including Ron Nirenberg (D8) who voted in favor of the agreement, called for the City to take another hard look at Chapter 33 for ways to possibly “even the playing field.”
The City and Lyft will host at least two town hall meetings during the nine-month period to collect feedback from drivers, riders, rideshare companies, and probably from the traditional vehicle-for-hire industry to discuss how the operating agreements are working, to review trip data from Lyft, and discuss how San Antonio could move forward on making further changes to vehicle-for-hire regulations.
“If the TNC choose to have a watered-down public safety (policy) and council approves that ‘part-time public safety,’ that’s their business,” said Yellow Cab President John Boulabasis. “Yellow Cab will always maintain the high standard of the FBI background check, criminal checks, fingerprinting, vehicle inspections, drug testing. … Some of the other items that are not public safety related (like permitting and caps) we’ll discuss further at a later time.”
Boulabasis said no one from the traditional vehicle-for-hire industry was involved in conversations between the City and rideshare companies as the agreement was formed.
This story was originally published on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2015.
*Featured/top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor (center, left) holds one of Lyft’s signature pink mustaches with Lyft Public Policy Manager, April Mims (center, right) along with (from left) Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1), OCI Group Managing Partner H. Analco González, Councilmember Allan Warrick II (D2), and Lyft supporter Jose Vidal. after the operating agreement was approved. Photo by Scott Ball.