TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - Dozens of drivers for traditional taxi companies and Uber attended Thursday's public hearing on terms for allowing Uber to enter the local taxi market. Uber promised to play nice with the city of Portland Thursday, agreeing it won’t force its way into the local taxi market again without the support of the Portland City Council.

But after a six-hour public hearing, the City Council agreed to ease off the gas pedal in crafting a four-month pilot project designed to let Uber and its peers compete with local taxi companies.

Several hours of testimony left many unanswered questions about the pilot project, such as whether Uber would get unfair advantages over taxi companies, whether its drivers carry enough insurance, and whether the city should require better service by traditional companies and Uber for passengers in wheelchairs.

The council agreed to postpone a planned April 15 final vote on the pilot project and instead agreed to hold an informal work session on April 21 to hash over many thorny issues.

Uber and its competitor Lyft allow people to convert their personal cars to taxis that are hailed by customers on their smartphones. Uber started the whole debate in December when it began operating in Portland without the required permits. The city sued the company. After a brief standoff, Mayor Charlie Hales struck a deal with Uber. The company withdrew on condition the city allow it to resume service here by April. That obligated the city to figure out a way to accommodate the new genre of "transportation network companies" in short order.

Tilted playing field

Now that April deadline may prove too optimistic, after a citizen task force rushed to create a set of guidelines for the four-month pilot project. In essence, the task force suggested an experiment in partial deregulation of Portland's taxi industry — though most of the benefits flow to Uber and Lyft, it's main competitor.

Task force members, led by retired state administrator Mike Greenfield, laid out several ideas for accommodating Uber, while assuring that its drivers undergo background checks, its cars are inspected, and provide commercial-level insurance. Though the task force sought to create a level playing field between traditional taxis and“transportation network companies, it’s clear they fell short.

Uber and Lyft rates would be unregulated, while traditional taxi rates would remain as they are. Uber and Lyft would pay token permit fees to enter the market, while large taxi companies pay $150,000 a year in permit fees, testified Raye Miles, president of Broadway and Sassy cab companies.

Traditional cab companies pay $50,000 for taxi vans that can accommodate wheelchairs, and local cab companies have ordered many more to comply with a new city mandate that 20 percent of their fleets be accessible to wheelchair users, double the prior requirement.

The task force said Uber and other transportation network companies could simply refer disabled customers to other services that accommodate passengers in wheelchairs. Miles testified that only 1.3 percent to 2 percent of all cab riders use wheelchairs, so serving them requires subsidies of as much as $34 a ride.

Its unclear if Uber would pay anything close to that to arrange alternative rides.

The pilot also frees Uber and Lyft drivers from putting video cameras in their private vehicles, as required in regular taxis to assure driver safety.

“It does strike me that we are potentially setting up a separate but unequal system,” said City Commissioner Nick Fish.

Uber cooperative — sort of

Brooke Steger, Uber’s general manager for the Northwest, seemed pleased by the task force’s recommendations and willing to participate in the pilot test.

“We definitely support the recommendations that came through,” she testified.

Steger also announced the company has struck a deal with First Transit to subcontract service to passengers in wheelchairs.

While commissioners seemed to like Steger’s cooperative stance on some matters, Steger raised some hackles when she balked at requiring local Uber drivers to get business licenses before being allowed to operate here.

That’s crucial to city officials, because business licenses would be the avenue to collect taxes on the income of Uber drivers, who operate as independent contractors.

The city should deal directly with the drivers to assure they get business licenses, Steger said.

She also resisted commissioners' request that Uber provide a list of all its driver names and license numbers operating in the city

Uber would prefer to provide the final five digits of their drivers’ licenses, to assure anonymity, she said. The city could then do spot checks to assure compliance with its rules by seeking data on a random sample of the drivers, she said.

Here we go again

“This is shades of STRs,” said Fish, referring to the city’s ongoing fight with Airbnb and other short-term rental companies.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz noted that 95 percent of Airbnb hosts in Portland have failed to get home inspections and permits required by the city. Airbnb continues to violate a city ordinance that requires the company to assure hosts get those permits before advertising their properties on its website.

Uber and Airbnb are the two leading companies in the so-called sharing economy.

If Uber doesn’t give the city a full list of the drivers, Fritz asked, the city will have no way of knowing which ones don’t have business licenses.

“I think we can have a further discussion about the business license,” Steger said, reluctant to yield on that matter.

Mayor Hales and City Commissioner Steve Novick are leading the charge to allow Uber and Lyft to enter the market. Portland shouldn’t be the “last holdout” that keeps them from competing here, Hales said. But neither should the city “surrender, as other cities have done,” he added.

But the other three city commissioners seem more reticent.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman said he’s worried Uber and Lyft will cause a “race to the bottom” in taxi driver wages. “In this unregulated frontier that we’re being asked to go to, there seems to be a real chance of that happening,” Saltzman said.

Fish said he has “enormous reservations” about allowing the pilot test under the proposed rules.

Fritz was adamant that Uber isn’t providing enough insurance for drivers. And she'll continue to follow lifelong advice that women shouldn't take rides from strangers in cars.

“I am never going to use Uber,” she declared.

Lyft strikes different pose

The City Council heard a more cooperative tone on Thursday from Lyft, Uber’s smaller competitor also based in San Francisco.

Lyft would require a business license before allowing a driver to join their system in Portland, pledged Annabel Chang, the company’s West Coast public policy manager.

Chang also touted the company’s environmental and feminist values. “The idea for us is we’re taking cars off the road,” she said, appealing to Portlanders’ green sensibilities.

Half of Lyft’s top executives are women, Chang said, along with a third of its drivers and 65 percent of its passengers. “We’re excited to see the Portland twist in how Lyft will operate.”

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