Legislators debate city's power to regulate Lyft, Uber

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Rep. Chris Paddie, author of the bill discussed Thursday, asks speakers about their arguments for and against legislation to regulate ride-sharing companies such as Lyft and Uber.

Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

Uber and Lyft, ride-sharing companies popular with many UT students, may soon be regulated on a state level in a shift from the current policy.

Lawmakers on the House transportation committee heard a bill Thursday that would allow the state, rather than individual cities, to set operation guidelines for Transportation Networking Companies. The debate centered on whether cities should be able to regulate background check policies for Lyft and Uber drivers. 

If passed, HB 2440 would allow the state to implement certain standardized operation guideline and require a yearly $115,000 operation fee and background checks conducted by the transportation network company or a third party. The bill was left pending in committee.

“The needs for this bill became apparent after the TNC were met with a patchwork of regulations in each of the cities they’ve attempted to operate in,” said Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), primary author of the bill.

Uber spokesperson Sally Kay said ride-sharing companies should be regulated by the state and should be allowed to conduct their own background checks.

“What we are seeing now on a national scale is that this issue is going to state jurisdiction,” Kay said.

The hearing followed recent controversy regarding driver background checks by ride-sharing companies operating in San Antonio and Houston.

Last week, an Uber driver  in Houston was accused of sexually assaulting a passenger, a crime city officials said could have been prevented if the ride-sharing service used city background checks, according to an article by the Houston Chronicle. 

In San Antonio, city representatives issued an ordinance giving the city oversight in driver background checks and requiring fingerprint tests for Lyft and Uber drivers. These tests are required for cab drivers.

Both Uber and Lyft said they would leave San Antonio if the new regulations are enforced.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo spoke at the hearing in opposition to the bill.

“Cities such as Austin should be able to embrace these new transportation options on their own terms — and to adopt regulations we believe offer the best protection for both our residents, but also our many welcomed visitors to Austin,” Tovo said.

Currently, Austin regulates TNCs under temporary ordinances. The city’s regulations require more than Uber and Lyft standard operation measures do, and mandate drivers hold additional insurance. The city also requires Lyft and Uber to allow city audits of their background checks.

“Together, we created an ordinance that really works well for TNCs, but also works well for the city of Austin,” Tovo said.

Victor Gabriel Encarnacion, undeclared junior and a Lyft and Uber driver, said he went through thorough vetting before getting hired He said he thinks cities should maintain control of ride-share regulations.

“For a city like Austin, which is a lot more concentrated in population, it would make sense for us to have city regulation instead simply because if it was a state-regulated issue, it would be irrelevant for cities that don’t have it,” Encarnacion said.

Pharmacy senior Brandi Rodriguez, who said she uses Uber regularly, said states should have jurisdiction.

“I think anything having to deal with safety and stuff — it should be on more of a state level,” Rodriguez said.