Voters to have final say on ride-hailing regulations in May

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Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, whose district covers UT and West Campus, discussing ride-hailing regulations Thursday.
Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Austin voters could have the final say on ride-hailing regulations as early as May 7 after City Council members decided Thursday to call for an election with a specific date yet to be decided.

After City Clerk Jeanette Goodall announced she had verified the minimum number of petition signatures to force council action on Feb. 2, the council could either call for an election and allow voters to decide — which would cost between $500,000 and $800,000, Goodall estimates — or approve the ordinance detailed in the petition.

“I think everybody on this council, while we disagree, has done what they believe is in the best interest of their community,” said council member Delia Garza, who supported the December regulations. “We have continually conceded — and sorry, I’m not going to use compromise — to this company over and over again and the history has been they’re not moving.”

The petition’s ordinance, which voters will decide on at the ballot, would nullify the December regulations — including the controversial fingerprint background checks originally intended to protect the safety of riders — and revert back to the minimal regulations approved under former Mayor Lee Leffingwell in 2014.

“I like my Uber like I like my Blue Bell ice cream,” said Laurie Felker Jones, who testified in favor of calling for an election. “I want to enjoy its product not having to worry about it putting me at risk for bodily harm.” 

Ridesharing Works for Austin, the coalition of seven Austin nonprofits backed by Uber and Lyft, organized the petition drive after the council’s December vote. 

Ride-hailing supporters argue the December regulations are too harsh on drivers and would prefer the council not let the voters decide to avoid the costs of an election.

“Ridesharing is already safe,” said ride-hailing driver Jackie Harris, who testified in favor of approving the petition ordinance. “Uber and Lyft monitors its partners, drivers and locations, knowing where and when the drivers and riders are during the trip’s progress.”

Journalism graduate student Destinee Harrison, a former Uber driver, said she understands where both sides of the ride-hailing debate are coming from, but argued voters should have the final say on the issue.

“At least they [are giving] them the option to say ‘Hey, look at what you think you wanted,’” Harrison said.

Officials with the two ride-hailing companies have threatened to leave the city if and when the regulations take effect, despite multiple attempts from Mayor Steve Adler to pass separate, related ordinances that would get rid of the fingerprint background checks.

Adler, who voted in favor of the December regulations, has recognized the ride-hailing companies provide Austin with a valuable service and stressed that the city and officials should work together on the regulations.

“I have been in search of a solution that would best help us achieve both of [our] safety goals,” Adler said.

After city council members decide on a specific date for the election at next week’s meeting, voters will have the final say on ride-hailing regulations when they head to the polls to put the issue to rest.