The Austin Chronicle

More Strong-Arming From Uber and Lyft

By Michael King, April 24, 2016, 10:00am, Newsdesk

On April 21, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Amanda Eversole wrote to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, suggesting that Austin’s candidacy for a Smart City Challenge Grant might be clouded if Austin voters reject Prop. 1 on May 7.

Just returned from Oslo, Norway, Mayor Steve Adler responded: “We shouldn’t let ourselves be bullied by outside organizations.”

Eversole’s two-page letter is a fairly flagrant attempt to persuade Foxx to take a dim view of Austin’s current regulations governing transportation network companies – Uber and Lyft – and she echoes in detail both the TNCs' campaign arguments and their threat to cease Austin operations if the city’s voters reject Prop. 1, the TNC-written ordinance that (among other company-favored changes) would block fingerprinting of drivers. “I would like to bring to your attention,” Eversole writes to Foxx, “an issue that could set back one of the most innovative cities in America, Austin, Texas.” After offering Foxx a thumbnail version of the history of TNCs in Austin – that is, the version promoted by Uber and Lyft and their political action committee, Ridesharing Works for Austin – Eversole concludes, “We hope you will take time to review this issue, and support transportation innovation.”

Austin is one of seven finalists for a $50 million Smart City Challenge Grant intended to support technological innovations that improve mobility, and Mayor Adler’s office has been working for months to support the city’s application. Adler was one of three mayors traveling with Sec. Foxx to Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway, considering transportation alternatives. (He returned Saturday.) Although she never explicitly advocates against a grant for Austin, Eversole’s rather brazen implication is that no city that regulates TNCs in ways not to the companies’ liking should be considered for a Smart City Grant.

On Saturday, from Norway, Adler responded to Eversole’s letter in a brief statement: "I just had a great week traveling with the Secretary of Transportation, and I’m not worried about the letter. The Smart City Challenge is looking for an innovative city committed to transforming mobility for everyone, especially those usually left behind – and that’s still Austin.

"The local chamber [Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce] hasn’t taken a position and we shouldn’t let ourselves be bullied by outside organizations.”

Eversole’s arguments closely mirror the heavily advertised views of Ridesharing Works (Uber and Lyft): that the temporary regulations adopted in 2014 have allowed TNCs to “thrive” in Austin; that “tens of thousands of Austinites now rely on TNCs” (although the companies do not release any figures on drivers, riders, or rides), that fingerprinting (the only new rule mentioned) is no safer and more expensive than the companies’ existing background checks, and that the adopted Prop. 1 ballot language (approved over a court challenge) is “very misleading and may confuse TNC supporters so that they inadvertently vote against Proposition 1. If this happens, TNCs may ultimately withdraw from the city.”

Eversole’s letter so consistently repeats the TNCs campaign arguments that the Chronicle asked Ridesharing Works spokesman Travis Considine if RWA had drafted or solicited the letter, and if he thought the letter gave the impression that the Chamber was attempting to nationalize a local issue while intervening in a local grant application and election.

Considine responded: “The U.S. Chamber issued the letter at their discretion. The issues being discussed in Austin are local in nature but have national implications. Will Austin be seen by the rest of the country as a city that embraces innovation or one that allows narrow political interests to hobble successful industries?”

Eversole’s letter was certainly viewed in some quarters as aimed more directly at Austin voters than Sec. Foxx. Joshua Baer, executive director of Capital Factory, posted the letter on Medium as “one more reason to Vote for Prop. 1.”

“This is getting uglier every day,” wrote Baer, referring not to Uber and Lyft’s bullying tactics now amplified by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but apparently to the notion that any Austinite should fail to succumb to the TNCs' threats and instead vote against Prop. 1.

You can read Eversole’s letter here. We’ve contacted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for additional comment, and will update with any response.

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