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Key players at City Hall are crafting an eleventh-hour amended ordinance to stop Uber from leaving San Antonio, 10 days after the rideshare company announced plans to end service here if one of the nation’s most restrictive ordinances goes into effect on March 1.
The ordinance passed by Council in December, say supporters of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, is so restrictive compared to other cities that it seemed designed to drive out any competitors using new technologies threatening the local taxi industry.
The working group is being led by Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1), who represents the center city, and includes Jill DeYoung, Mayor Ivy Taylor’s chief of staff, Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh, and interim San Antonio Police Chief Anthony Treviño.
Councilmember Treviño confirmed the latest developments in an interview late Sunday after several sources shared details of the effort with the Rivard Report.
The group is drafting a less restrictive ordinance that could be presented to City Council for approval within weeks, and no later than March 5, Treviño said in an interview.
“I feel very positive that we are very close to a compromise agreement,” Treviño said. “We are really focusing on a policy that does not make us look like a city that stifles innovation at the same time we take care to assure the public’s safety.”
Treviño said he could not say if the proposed revisions would win the support of Mayor Ivy Taylor and others on the City Council who voted 7-2 in favor of the highly restrictive ordinance in December that prompted Uber representatives to announce they will end service in San Antonio.
“I am an architect and we are all about creating a culture of collaboration,” Treviño said. “We want to be facilitators, not regulators. We don’t want regulations that are stifling for one industry or another.”
Treviño is the newest member of City Council, appointed Dec. 11 to replace Diego Bernal, who stepped down to seek the House seat vacated by former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, who is running for mayor. It was the very day of the Council vote on the rideshare ordinance. Treviño, who literally had just taken his oath, abstained. If he does lead a working group to successfully craft a compromise ordinance that keeps rideshare in San Antonio, it would be a remarkable accomplishment for a council member with less than three months in office.
“I am trying to do what’s best for the city, and I feel good about the spot I’m in, and I think we are almost there,” Treviño said. “I appreciate the collaborative efforts I’ve seen with staff and with Uber.”
Another source said Mayor Taylor would reach out to Uber on Monday and send company representatives a letter intended to keep the company from pulling up stakes in San Antonio.
The move to soften the ordinance even before it takes effect comes after weeks of building public protest over the Council’s December vote and, in the preceding months, widespread disapproval among rideshare users of how Uber and Lyft and their drivers were treated by city government.
Recently retired Police Chief William McManus was the driving force behind the move last year to tightly regulate Uber and Lyft, branding the services and their independent drivers as lawbreakers. The public, on the other hand, embraced rideshare companies as a welcome transportation option, one that employs smart phone apps to put affordable ride service at the fingertips of customers. Many users cite it as the most effective tool available to combat drunk driving.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who served as San Antonio’s mayor from 1991-95, sent an open letter to Mayor Taylor one week ago on Feb. 9 that criticized the pending ordinance and how it would negatively portray San Antonio around the nation. Rideshare, he wrote, is an attractive and popular transportation option that reduces the incidence of drunk driving, and is especially appealing to skilled young professionals that cities everywhere are competing to retain and attract.
Mayoral candidate and longtime Southtown resident Mike Villarreal, who recently stepped down from his District 123 House seat in the Texas Legislature, is making rideshare a campaign issue. A campaign email blast on Sunday called on his supporters to sign a change.org petition launched by Lorenzo Gomez III, the director of the 80/20 Foundation and Geekdom, the downtown tech incubator and co-working space. Nearly 5,000 people had signed the petition by Sunday evening.
“Please take a couple of minutes to watch my video on Lyft and Uber,” Villarreal wrote in the email to supporters and city residents.
“The City of San Antonio should embrace policies in support of entrepreneurship, ridesharing and welcome these apps to San Antonio to combat drunk driving, reduce road congestion, make a positive impact on the environment and improve public safety and transportation options for our community,” Villarreal wrote.
From the beginning, many in the city saw rideshare as a mishandled issue, one that came under attack as former Mayor Julián Castro prepared to resign his office to accept a Cabinet post in the Obama administration and District 2 Councilmember Ivy Taylor was elected to serve as interim mayor. City Hall seemed threatened by innovation and unnerved by an angry taxi lobby.
Some around City Hall who opposed the rideshare regulations said Mayor Taylor and Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3), who chaired the Public Safety Committee that produced the ordinance, along with other Council members, voted on the matter without any first-hand experience with rideshare services.
From the beginning, Chief McManus framed the matter as a law enforcement and public safety matter rather than a breakthrough 21st century transportation option that simply could not fit into 20th century regulations written decades ago to regulate a legacy taxi industry.
“It’s a victory for the riding public and the consumers,” said John Bouloubasis, president of Yellow Cab of San Antonio, when the ordinance passed last December. Bouloubais represented the traditional taxi cab industry on the ordinance task force, and controls a significant majority of the taxis operating in San Antonio. “Remember, these companies came in here operating illegally. Now there’s a regulatory framework in place for them to follow.”
The taxi lobby contributed thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to select Council members and staged orchestrated protests at City Hall in which some of the participating drivers said they were paid to show up, carry placards, fill City Council chambers and play to local television news cameras.
Beginning March 1, drivers for rideshare companies will be required to have a 10-fingerprint background check, drug test, a review of their driving record, an initial and yearly vehicle inspection (including random checks), and proof of personal insurance. Documentation of these requirements will have to be presented to City staff by the driver – in person – before a driver and vehicle permit is issued at a cost of $175. The process will likely take about two weeks, according to City staff.
Instead, it now appears an ordinance that is closer to those passed in other Texas cities will be brought to City Council for a vote. The effort will be lauded by rideshare supporters, but is bound to be opposed vigorously by the taxi industry and will be scrutinized by those concerned that City Council is rushing a revised ordinance through the system.
Had the City not decided to act in the face of mounting protest, however, several San Antonio lawyers were considering a legal challenge to the ordinance. Some of those lawyers asked to remain unnamed, but appellate attorney Beth Watkins said she has been part of such discussions.
“Honest to God, the way this ordinance is written is totally unconstitutional and some of us have been talking about challenging it on equal protection grounds because it is so wrong,” she said. “The ordinance, as written, only makes sense to me if the City is in bed with Yellow Cab, and I know they say that’s not the case, but that’s how the ordinance looks on its face.”
She said the ordinance illegally sets higher insurance requirements for TNCs than taxi companies.
“The Constitution requires that the City treat similarly situated companies equally. For no good reason, the City has decided that traditional taxicab companies like Yellow Cab are not like ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. The City requires that companies like Uber and Lyft carry $1,000,000 in insurance for the safety of their passengers. Yet the City permits companies like Yellow Cab to carry only $30,000 in insurance,” Watkins said.
“If your Uber or Lyft crashes and you are hurt, the maximum you can collect for your medical bills and other injuries is $1,000,000. But if your Yellow Cab crashes and you suffer the same exact injuries, the maximum you can collect for your medical bills and other injuries is $30,000. In both scenarios, the passenger is just as hurt. But the City has decided to give special treatment to companies like Yellow Cab by only requiring them to carry $30,000 in insurance. That decision violates the Constitution.”
Watkins said she looks at rideshare as both a lawyer and as a single woman who feels more secure using Uber rather than conventional taxi service.
“I don’t feel so safe taking Yellow Cabs, I do feel safe in Uber cars,” Watkins said. “There is less time waiting wherever I am, and once in the vehicle, I feel safer.”
Jorge Herrera, another local attorney involved in the litigation discussions, said he and his wife, Victoria, are “huge supporters of Uber and Lyft.”
“We used Uber to attend the recent Hispanic Chamber of Commerce gala at the Grand Hyatt Hotel downtown. I didn’t want to deal with parking, or driving after having something to drink,” Herrera said. “Taxi service isn’t anywhere near as good: it takes cars longer to arrive, the vehicles aren’t as nice, and drivers don’t want to accept credit cards.”
*Featured/top image: Screenshots from the rideshare mobile applications Uber (left) and Lyft (right).
This story was originally published on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.