Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report
City staff presented City Council with a number of rule changes for both rideshare and more traditional transportation services on Wednesday aimed at “leveling the playing field” in the ever-evolving, oft-tumultuous vehicle for hire industry.
The proposed rules intend to keep companies like Uber and Lyft in town by incentivizing the optional 10-print fingerprint background checks with a “raffle” for gas money, and loosen regulations on taxis, limousines, and charter vehicles. Permitting fees would also be adjusted. Click here to download an outline of the changes.
City Council will vote on the proposed changes on Thursday, Dec. 8. Citizens can sign up to speak to City Council before the meeting at 9 a.m. at the Municipal Plaza Building.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) had questioned the effectiveness of the optional fingerprint check, but his concerns seemed assuaged by the plan to require rideshare companies to inform drivers of the optional test and offer a financial incentive to do so. The latter would involve a kind of “raffle” every month for a gas card drivers could use to offset their fuel costs. Tech Bloc, the local technology industry advocacy group that hosted hundreds of rideshare supporters at a rally Tuesday night, may provide funding for such a program.
City staff is working to “nail that down quickly,” said Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh, and will present more details to City Council before it votes next week.
When the current pilot program was under negotiation, said Assistant Police Director Steven Baum, Lyft and Uber refused to promote the optional test in any way. Last year, the City spent $30,000 on a general awareness initiative that tried to get drivers to register and show riders how to pick out drivers that have taken it. While 373 drivers have registered, rideshare companies have continually declined to share information on how many drivers are active.
Baum said some rideshare companies have agreed to notify new drivers of the fingerprint test and to remind them of it every few months. Rather than instituting an ordinance or changing the City code, Council will be voting on a contractual operating agreement that can be extended each year for up to four years to allow for flexibility.
“I think these guys (City staff) have come forward with a credible proposal,” Krier said.
Representatives of the traditional transportation industry, and many City Council members, are opposed to allowing drivers to transport passengers without a fingerprint background check, citing public safety.
“(Public safety) isn’t a voluntary thing,” Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) said. “While I commend you for your attempts to incentivize (and) give different variations of carrots … it will happen that somebody will say, ‘Man I wish I would have clicked that button that said I want somebody that has a 10-print.”
Lopez was referring to accusations that violent criminals or sexual predators could slip through third-party checks. There have been some cases in Texas and around the world that resulted in assaults, but there is no data that suggests assaults are more – or less –common in taxis or limousines.
“Fingerprints don’t prevent somebody from doing something wrong,” Baum said after the meeting. “(There are) third-party background investigations that are done nationally now … as technology has evolved over the last century, we have electronic databases that have all that information that people can go and search.”
Rideshare advocates point to passenger apathy when it comes to the fingerprint check, which would be taken in addition to the third-party test already required by rideshare companies, and to falling drunk driving fatalities in San Antonio since transportation network companies (TNCs) returned under a pilot operating agreement last year.
“We see the incredible use of TNCs and the feedback we’ve gotten from (the community) … most (people) that want to use an Uber or Lyft are relying on the (third-party) background checks that those industries are already (using),” Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told City Council the third-party checks are “adequate enough to provide enough safety” and added later that there was a “significant decrease” in arrests for driving while intoxicated (DWI) and related fatalities since rideshare returned in 2015.
From 11 p.m to 2 a.m. on Halloween night, “Uber ridership grew five-fold,” from 2015 to 2016, McManus said, adding that there were eight DWI arrests last year compared to only two this year.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who voted against the pilot program last year, showed signs of her opposition waning due to the “compelling” drunk driving statistics and recent feedback she’s gotten from citizens about how rideshare can relieve some parking stress in the inner city and be used by senior citizens.
“Safety has always been the number one priority … that’s why I think fingerprints are so important,” Gonzales said. “But I know that I have talked to many people (that have used rideshare during) this pilot period. I know my mother used it the other day and (that) really surprised me.”
Gonzales and Lopez joined Council members Mike Gallagher (D10), Cris Medina (D7), and Rebecca Viagran (D3) in a vote against the pilot operating agreements last year. A similar divide is expected next week.
All of this may be rendered moot if either of the two bills proposed at the state level are approved. Senate Bill 113, filed by State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) would prohibit cities from regulating any vehicle for hire business – rideshare or traditional –and replace city rules with a state law that prohibits sex offenders from becoming drivers.
State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) filed Senate Bill 176, which would prohibit cities from regulating rideshare/TNCs and instead implement state laws featuring “a series of requirements which does not include the 10-print,” said Jeff Coyle, the City’s director of Government and Public Affairs.
“Where they go and how those bills end up looking by the end of the process is hard to predict,” Coyle added.