Chattanooga City Council hears from public on Uber ordinances

photo Uber claims that its ride-share service UberX is faster, cheaper and more convenient than taxis. At first glance the benefits seem obvious. Riders can sign up for the mobile app and instantly request a ride.

To Uber or not to Uber? That's not the question.

Chattanooga City Council members acknowledge the popular ride-sharing company is here to stay in the Scenic City, and their job is to regulate the new travel option fairly.

The council currently could take one of two routes -- one ordinance proposed by Councilman Ken Smith, who leads the transportation committee, and one by Chris Anderson.

Smith has offered up an ordinance to modernize and relax the city's 20-year-old taxi rules, increase taxi rates by 50 cents per mile and 20 cents per minute for waiting, reform the city's taxi board and include regulations for network-based ride sharing companies, such as Uber or Lyft.

Smith said Tuesday his goal was to make life easier for taxi drivers and make a comprehensive bill that includes rules for Uber or other transportation networks.

"My goal was to make comprehensive legislation so that any passenger for hire vehicle who comes to town is operating under the same basic rules," Smith said.

Anderson's ordinance doesn't change anything about how taxis do business, but it takes a different approach to regulating ride-share networks, which he says are completely different from taxis. His ordinance provides requirements for insurance, driver background checks and consequences for bad actors. But it largely leaves initial inspection and insurance coverage up to the company.

"I think when you look at mine, it's based on the best practices in other midsized cities in Tennessee and across the nation," Anderson said.

Uber -- and by order its small army of Chattanooga drivers -- has thrown support behind Anderson's ordinance.

Nearly 20 residents -- mostly Uber drivers and a handful of cabbies -- addressed the council Tuesday to give their input. Most sang the praises of Uber but never gave preference to one bill or another. But taxi drivers asked for equity.

Cab drivers said drivers for transportation networks should have to go through the same vehicle and licensing hoops as taxi drivers do. They also cited restrictions on cab companies that will remain in either ordinance -- such as a requirement to own at least five vehicles to open a cab company.

A.J. Howard, a driver for Mercury Taxi, questioned whether the metered, regulated taxi companies will be able to compete fairly with transportation networks, which don't have fixed fares.

"This city has only got 300,000 people, are we going to be able to work together? I worked Saturday. I usually do $150 on Saturday, but I did $35. ... Uber was giving out free rides."

But David Barmore, a public policy associate for Uber, told council members taxi companies need not worry.

"We are currently in 230 cities all over the world, and in not one of those cities has a taxi cab company gone under," Barmore said.

Barmore said Uber favored Anderson's bill because it "recognized Uber has its own safeguards" and putting vehicle inspection, driver permitting and insurance requirements in the city's hands could be burdensome.

But Smith says the city should have a hand in permitting transportation network drivers, because it's going to have to enforce them.

"My bill puts inspection of the vehicle and permitting for the driver through the same [agency] that's doing enforcement," Smith said.

Residents will have another opportunity for a public hearing on the issue next week, during a transportation committee meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.