Mobility Committee maneuvers on taxicab contracts
Thursday, April 9, 2015 by Tyler Whitson
While the city has begun a process to rewrite regulations for both taxicabs and transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, a looming expiration of the city’s taxicab franchise agreements and a bill in the Texas Legislature appear to be complicating the matter.
In an effort to address the issue, the City Council Mobility Committee recommended unanimously Wednesday that the full Council renew the existing agreements on first reading at its April 23 meeting, with the understanding that it can revamp them on or before a June 4 final reading deadline that Transportation Department staff has recommended.
That decision, however, came after a discussion about extending the existing agreements for a single year, rather than the revision and 10-year renewal that staff has recommended.
“There’s some obsolescence in this model,” said Council Member Don Zimmerman. “I’d be more comfortable to get us some more time to figure out what to do and how to solve this by maybe extending for one year.”
Council Member Sheri Gallo suggested that the measure could “buy some time” and give Council the opportunity to consider the agreements as part of a broader discussion about ground transportation regulations that she hopes will create a “more level playing field.”
Carlton Thomas, Transportation Department infrastructure operations division manager, told the committee that the city has to follow a tight timeline in order to adhere to the City Charter, which requires Council to pass the ordinance on three readings.
If Council misses the renewal deadline, Yellow Cab Austin and Austin Cab Company will risk noncompliance when their agreements expire Aug. 8, since the ordinance that renews the agreements takes 60 days to go into effect. The agreement for Lone Star Cab — the city’s third franchise — expires Aug. 28.
If the agreements expire, Thomas added, the city will have 30 days to correct the situation.
The renewals could also impact the regulation revision process in a few ways, because staff has recommended adding new provisions to the agreements such as mandatory credit card acceptance, new reporting and GPS-enabled dispatch requirements, and an expectation that the companies will acquire 100 percent wheelchair-accessible and renewable fleets by 2025.
In addition, staff has recommended that Council establish a fourth franchise agreement that would allocate up to 105 permits to a company that would offer a 100 percent wheelchair-accessible and green fleet as part of its operation.
At the same time, the state Legislature is considering House Bill 2440, sponsored by Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), which could pre-empt any regulations that Council passes on transportation network companies, also known as TNCs. The Senate has scheduled the bill for a hearing at 8 a.m. today before the Transportation Committee.
“We have a process here that needs to play itself out, appropriately,” said Gallo, referring to the course of the bill and noting that it could also affect the city’s ability to take a holistic approach to ground transportation policy.
If the bill dies, Council will know without a doubt by June 1, the last day of session. If passed, however, Council may not know the outcome until June 21, which is the deadline for Gov. Greg Abbott to veto or sign passed bills.
The Mobility Committee began the process of re-examining ground transportation regulations last month when it heard staff recommendations on taxicab ordinance amendments and a set of regulations for TNCs to replace an interim ordinance the previous Council passed in October. It has met every week since then.
The most significant recommendation staff has made as far as taxicab ordinance amendments is to increase the number of available permits by 100 for each franchise, in addition to the proposal for a fourth franchise.
The action the committee eventually took, proposed by Council Member Delia Garza, gives Council the opportunity to follow staff’s recommended timeline by adopting an ordinance on first reading before likely referring the issue back to the next committee meeting April 29, keeping an eye on the Legislature all the while.
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