Public Notice: No Way to Run a City

Why is Council drafting ordinances on the dais after midnight?

Public Notice

For the second time in three weeks, CM Chris Riley had City Council up past midnight last Thursday, trying to work out ordinance language on a rush basis, that appeared to have no pressing need for a rush, except for serving Riley's own campaign needs.

Make no mistake: Council will pass an ordinance legalizing and regulating trans­port­ation network companies – the term of art for app-based cab companies such as Uber and Lyft – within the next month. The open question is: Will it be the hacked-together ordinance pushed by the TNCs themselves and carried by CM Riley, or will Council wait a few weeks to see the findings and recommendations being readied by the TNC Work­ing Group they themselves set up back in May?

The TNC stakeholder group was created on May 15 by unanimous Council resolution, sponsored by Riley; it was tasked with reporting back to Council within 180 days (i.e., by Nov. 11) with recommendations on how to regulate TNCs, and, critically, "equitably take into account the already stringent regulations required of city of Austin taxicab companies." This last is a key point, because the taxi franchise agreements are indeed stringent: setting fares to within a penny, mandating safety inspections and wheelchair-accessible fleets, and strictly limiting the number of cabs allowed on the streets. Cab companies and drivers now look at the wide-open regs being contemplated for TNCs, and ask, "What about us?" (To cite just one minor example: TNCs are prohibited in some cities from operating at airports – there's no "peak demand" need for the service there, after all, and it's one competitive advantage cab companies can easily retain. Yet the proposed Austin ordinance makes no such concession, and in fact exempts TNCs from the $1 surcharge cabbies have to pay to pick up fares at Austin-Bergstrom. Why? Who knows?)

The taxi conundrum is hardly the only point in question, but it's a compelling one. The "labor wing" of the council – Lee Leffing­well and Mike Martinez – showed signs of balking at the rush job toward the end of the discussion – primarily because of the inherent unfairness to the taxi industry, which, said Martinez, "has been asking us for years to add peak-demand permits, and try to come up with creative solutions, to deal with some of the issues that this proposal supposedly is going to be addressing. ... Why are we handcuffing one industry, and completely unhandcuffing another industry to do whatever they want?" Lef­fing­well said he wanted to make sure cab drivers get some of the same options for flexibility that the TNCs enjoy de facto – though no such options are contemplated in any current version of the ordinance – and Mar­tinez stressed that he'd need to see a lot of open questions resolved before moving ahead on second and third readings.

Riley originally pushed for passing the TNC ordinance on all three readings – including revisions that city legal staff had not even seen before the council meeting – but there was obviously no support for that, as many sections were clearly undercooked, and, with several versions of the ordinance circulating on the dais simultaneously, Council members were often confused as to just what they were voting on. So, then, why the rush to push this ordinance through right now? One of the ordinance's "Findings" is telling, if enigmatic: "Some members of the stakeholder group have expressed concerns about the information that the stakeholder group is receiving, the way that input is being handled within the stakeholder group, and over the composition of the stakeholder group." I can only guess at what that means, but it seems that some of the regulations being discussed by the Working Group are unpalatable to someone (guess who?), and need to be short-circuited before they come out in public. Meanwhile, of course, being seen as a champion of new technology clearly fits Riley's current Council campaign – as he positions himself as appealing to the youth vote, rather than just the low-information vote – in a way that just wouldn't do if the proposal were allowed to cook until five days after the election, as currently planned.

At press time, members of the TNC Work­ing Group were holding a press conference Downtown, "calling on the Council to postpone Thursday's TNC vote and ... protect consumer safety by not making a decision before they have been presented their recommendations, which will include national best practices, consumer protections, passenger and driver safety, and much more. ...

"So why the rush? The city of Austin has an opportunity to create a model TNC pilot program. By waiting three short weeks to allow staff and Council to work through the recommendations, we can get it right the first time, for the safety and protection of Austin residents and visitors."

Austin B-cycle is celebrating its first Austin City Limits Festival with a number of special services: Valet service at each festival entrance: Find a bike Downtown, ride it over and drop it right at the entrance. Volunteering: Get half off an annual membership by helping out on the Events or Operations teams. Weekend Pass: three days of access for $19.99.

Capital Metro is getting in on the act too, with shuttle service to and from Republic Square, plus a variety of buses, including the new MetroRapid service, stopping at Barton Springs and Lamar.

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transportation network companies, City Council, Chris Riley, Uber, Lyft, Mike Martinez, TNC Working Group, taxis

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