Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing companies will continue to operate in San Antonio under a four-year plan that allows optional fingerprint background checks. City Council voted 9-2 Thursday morning in favor of the annual agreements that will be reviewed each year by City staff and can be adjusted as needed, officials said.
The vote comes after years of heated debate and lobbying, both camps claiming to have the interest of “public safety” on their side.
“Every member of this Council is deeply committed to public safety,” Councilman Joe Krier (D9) said, “regardless of how we end up voting on this.”
City Council will be updated on the status of the contracts, how passengers and drivers are responding to the service, drunk driving statistics, and other statistics related to transportation network companies (TNCs) each year before the contracts are renewed.
“Today is a day to celebrate,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said during a press conference after the vote. “San Antonians and visitors will continue to have a constant, stable, and convenient way to get around town.”
Some traditional taxi and limousine companies and drivers claimed the 10-point fingerprint background check, which checks against FBI databases and is required for so-called vehicle for hire drivers, is the only way to ensure passenger safety. Council members Ray Lopez (D6) and Mike Gallagher (D10) agreed and cast the two votes against the measure.
“I like TNCs. I think it’s a great idea, but I also agree that we ought to have everyone pass the (10-print) background test,” said Gallagher, who noted that even drivers of horse-drawn carriages have to be fingerprinted.
Taylor called for the return of rideshare in June 2015, two months after rules for mandatory fingerprinting caused Lyft and Uber to cease operations in San Antonio. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) worked with ride-hailing companies, City staff, technology industry advocacy group Tech Bloc, and other stakeholders to develop a pilot agreement.
City leadership will continue to keep a close eye on the Texas Legislature as two bills that would override local regulations regarding TNCs have been filed this session, which starts on Jan. 10, 2017. Neither would require fingerprint background checks if passed.
“In a state as large as Texas, there’s no way that one size fits all,” Taylor said. “It certainly makes sense for those local elected leaders here on the ground in San Antonio to deliberate and make decisions on behalf of our citizens as opposed to folks in Austin.”
Council and community supporters of rideshare pointed to reduced drunk driving fatalities in the city since Uber and Lyft resumed operations last year under a pilot operating agreement.
Mayor Taylor and Council members Krier, Treviño, Alan Warrick (D2), Rebecca Viagran (D3), Rey Saldaña (D4), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Cris Medina (D7), and Ron Nirenberg (D8) voted in favor of the new contracts.
Viagran, Gonzales, and Medina voted against the pilot program last year, but each noted that the drunk driving statistics – namely decreased fatalities and arrests – provided by the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) were too compelling to ignore.
SAPD Chief William McManus has repeatedly told Council that the third-party State and federal background checks automatically performed by TNC companies are sufficient in ensuring public safety.
The City will spend about $27,000 in 2017 on awareness efforts to reach drivers and passengers to encourage them to take advantage of the optional background check feature. The mobile applications are required to indicate with a registration number whether a driver has taken the fingerprint check with SAPD. Then passengers that prefer fingerprinted drivers can reject those who haven’t taken it.
“We at Uber look forward to continuing to connect passengers in San Antonio with safe, reliable rides around town and to provide flexible earning opportunities to people throughout the greater San Antonio area,” stated David Brightman, general manager of Uber San Antonio in an email. “Our driver community in San Antonio includes veterans, students, retirees, stay-at-home parents, people with full-time jobs, and many more. We look forward to further working with the City, the state and the tech community to help bring more opportunity and safe rides to more Texans.”
Lyft and Uber have agreed to tell drivers about the fingerprinting option and the City is setting up a raffle for drivers that would make them eligible to win a $250 gas card if they take the 10-print check.
Tech Bloc and Centro San Antonio, a nonprofit that advocates for urban development and manages the downtown Public Improvement District, have agreed to help promote the optional background check and gas card initiatives.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that it’s difficult to find a driver on the app. While more than 250 TNC drivers have been fingerprinted, there’s no guarantee on if, when, and where they will be transporting passengers on any given day.
Though the local battle is won, and the war at the state level has yet to be fought, both companies will likely continue to improve their platform’s functionality and safety features, Tech Bloc CEO David Heard said.
“They’re innovation companies, so they’re never going to stop innovating,” he commented after the vote.
Rena Davis, a government relations official with Lyft, attended the Council meeting and confirmed that the company will continue to look for ways to improve its safety features.
“We never stop coming up with ideas,” Davis told the Rivard Report. “Our coders and our staff are just full of them.”
Council unanimously approved two other measures Thursday that changed fee structures and relaxed some onerous requirements on taxi and limousine drivers.
Operating fees for vehicles for hire were reduced from $440 to $250, inspection requirements were shifted to state inspections instead of third-party, and alternative dispatching methods – via smart phone or other digital means – are now allowed. Airport permit fees for limos were eliminated, but the $150 fee for taxis was retained.
The City currently caps the number of permits available for vehicles for hire, a rule that several taxi drivers said should be eliminated since TNCs don’t have caps.
Assistant Police Director Steven Baum told Council that City staff will start investigating best practices across the U.S. and report back in six to nine months with findings on how or if to proceed with a permit cap adjustment.
Baum advised against abruptly removing the cap, noting that there’s no telling what kind of impact that would have on the industry. Some major cities have raised their permit limits and at least one has removed them entirely, he said, and that City staff would “look at those cities and find out what they’ve had to do to adjust administratively.”
Several local taxi industry leaders spoke in favor of the changes. While not convinced that the optional fingerprinting program is the best system for San Antonio, Yellow Cab San Antonio President John Bouloubasis spoke in support of the latter ordinances.
“The vehicle for hire business and landscape is ever-changing,” Bouloubasis said.
Many in that business feel the “playing field” for TNCs and traditional taxis has not yet been leveled. Robert Gonzales, owner of National Cab, told City Council that permitting fees should be equal across the board for each car and company, and that mandatory fingerprinting is the only way to ensure public safety.
TNCs will pay a 10-cent fee per trip in San Antonio, with an annual minimum of $10,000 and maximum of $50,000. There are 900 taxi permits in San Antonio. Uber and Lyft have declined to report how many drivers have signed up or are currently using their respective platforms.
If the State hasn’t taken away local control of the rideshare issue in four years, it’s likely that San Antonio will have to go through another round of changes to Chapter 33, the section of municipal code that governs vehicles for hire.
“Our endgame is to re-craft Chapter 33 so we don’t have individual contracts for every company that comes to our door,” Nirenberg said.