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Legislature drives closer to statewide ride-hailing regulations

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Three bills that would trump Austin’s ride-hailing regulations swerved through the Texas Senate on Tuesday.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd, the Committee on Business & Commerce took up Senate bills 113, 176 and 361. Each authored by Republican lawmakers, the bills would overturn rules passed by Austin’s City Council in 2015 and subsequently upheld by an overwhelming majority of voters last May.

The separate bills would create statewide rules to govern transportation network companies such as Uber, Lyft, Fasten and the homegrown nonprofit RideAustin. Each would abolish the fingerprinting requirement for drivers that Austin voters refused to abolish last year after Uber and Lyft sunk $10 million into a referendum on lighter regulations. Both companies voluntarily chose to close up shop in the city after that election, yielding the streets to less prominent companies that have agreed to operate within the rules.

Also on Tuesday, the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice reported that Uber and Lyft both have $2.3 million to lobby lawmakers this session. Since 2014, according to TPJ, both companies have dropped $5.5 million on lobbyists at the Capitol.

In laying out his SB 176, Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) argued that transportation policy is a regional concern that supersedes local interests.

“Political decisions made by one city have an undeniable impact on surrounding communities,” Schwertner said. “Just as the vote held in the city of Austin last year had a direct impact on the transportation options available to (the) nearly half a million constituents I represent in Williamson and Travis counties.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who championed the 2015 rules, testified before the committee that fingerprinting is a matter of protecting the welfare of passengers.

“Public safety and the success of TNCs are not mutually exclusive,” said Kitchen, who represents the city’s District 5. “Austin has demonstrated how citizens can exercise their rights to choose public safety and that the market will meet the challenge and provide the services.”

After Kitchen’s testimony, her colleague, Council Member Ellen Troxclair, staked out an opposing position. The District 8 representative framed the exit of Uber and Lyft as a “debacle” for Austin that cost the city jobs, transportation options and tourists. She urged the state lawmakers to overturn the actions of what she deemed “the hostile local government.”

“While some may argue that local control should prevail at all costs, local control is only valuable as a tool to protect individual liberty. In this case, local control of ride-sharing technologies has not proven to serve this purpose,” Troxclair said.

The timing of Tuesday’s hearing coincided with a renewed focus on ride-hailing in Austin as thousands of visitors converge on the town during South by Southwest. Many out-of-towners have vented on social media about the absence of Uber and Lyft.

The committee took no action on Tuesday, instead leaving the status of all three bills as “pending,” according to Chair Kelly Hancock.

Photo by Dllu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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