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City Council member Laura Morrison votes against an ordinance Thursday legalizing transportation network companies.

Photo Credit: Ellyn Snider | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin City Council approved an ordinance Thursday, in a 6-1 vote, to allow transportation network companies, or TNCs, to operate in the city. The ordinance will be in effect until August 2015.

The City Council, which has deliberated over the ordinance at its past two meeting, used Thursday’s third and final reading of the ordinance to fine-tune the language. Along with clarifying the language to ensure TNC drivers are covered by insurance whenever they log onto ride-sharing apps, the City Council also approved tweaks such as defining the 12-hour limit for TNC drivers. Council member Laura Morrison gave the lone “no” vote against the ordinance.

Following a proposal from Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, the City Council chose to adopt the Houston code of background checks, stating the TNC would provide the first background check, and the City would audit the report. 

According to Council member Chris Riley, the background checks that drivers at TNCs such as Uber and Lyft undergo are more rigorous than the background checks of taxicab drivers.

Uber General Manager Chris Nakutis said he trusted the outside background check companies more than a city’s vetting process.

“We know them to be reliable,” Nakutis said. “We vetted our background check company, and we know the quality of the company that we use. Even with city background checks, we would still use our own.”

April Mims, public policy manager at Lyft, said the company Lyft uses to vet drivers is more effective than Austin’s screening process.

“We feel confident that SterlingBackCheck has the safest way to hire, and that’s why 90 percent of the drivers who apply are screened out of the platform,” Mims said. “The concern is that 75 percent of our drivers are driving less than 15 hours a week, and, if they have to go through the process of being screened by the city, there will be a delay and also may not incentivize them.”

Mims also clarified what Lyft and Uber’s outreach to underserved areas meant in terms of the ordinance.

“We were looking at areas that don’t have as much access to transit, and those tend to be in areas of lower socioeconomic class,” Mims said. “We wanted to increase outreach in areas that are socioeconomically underserved.”

Riley introduced an amendment that specified TNC drivers would not need to obtain a chauffeur’s permit.

“Some suggestions that staff have would still require a chauffeur’s permit of all TNCs’ drivers, even though [the] substance of the permit is covered by other provisions of this ordinance,” Riley said. “Going through that process separately would be redundant.”

Riley also proposed an amendment to clarify how transportation network companies would work with transportation to and from the airport. Perla Compton, Austin’s ground transportation manager, said TNCs are subject to fees just as taxis and buses are.

Compton said charging TNCs ground transportation fees for providing rides to and from the airport would be simple through an electronic system.

“Every ground transportation provider must apply and use a transponder that we sell,” Compton said. “We keep track of who enters the airport to drop off or there to pick up. We would have to register each vehicle into our system. If you already have a toll tag, we have a computer system that works with the number on that toll tag.”

Austin City Council member Chris Riley talks about the transportation networking companies ordinance Thursday night.

Photo Credit: Graeme Hamilton | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin City Council continued to discuss an interim ordinance allowing transportation network companies to legally operate in Austin and passed a resolution to revise the city’s sound ordinance at a meeting Thursday. 

The TNC ordinance passed 6-1 on its second reading, and the Council will revisit the ordinance for the final time at its next meeting. 

Council member Chris Riley, who sponsored the resolution, proposed passing the TNC ordinance immediately, on an emergency basis. Riley said the ordinance addresses a number of issues regarding ride-sharing services.

“With respect to the issue about accessible service, and I thought that was the biggest issue we needed to address in real detail,” Riley said. “There is new language that clarifies that the goal is to have successful rides with wait time equivalent to other TNC times.”

Council member Laura Morrison, who gave the only “no” vote on the ordinance, said the Council ought to look at the plan more closely.

“I don’t think it’s an emergency and would much prefer to see the whole issue go forward,” Morrison said. “If we are going to pass this, I do want a few things clarified and make sure we have the language right.”

Morrison expressed concern about language issues in the ordinance, including the requirement that TNCs provide outreach to underserved communities.

“I do think handing it over to the TNCs to do their best is not adequate,” Morrison said. “I think there should be some requirement in the law that allows us to evaluate it and put new requirements in their agreements if they’re not doing it adequately.”

While Riley said a task force would continue to work on a more long-term solution beyond the temporary ordinance, Morrison said she thought addressing all aspects of the ordinance, temporary or not, was necessary.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said legalizing ride-sharing transportation is the next necessary step in Austin transportation.

“I realize that something needs to be done about our transportation system,” Leffingwell said. “I want to make sure we provide a level playing field for all kinds of transportation agencies, including cab companies. It’s silly to put a restriction on the number of cabs in service. The best approach is to deregulate — not totally, but still have requirements for insurance and vetting drivers.”

Council member Kathie Tovo expressed concern with surge pricing and proposed capping the level where pricing could rise. After a
representative from the Lyft ride-sharing service explained surge pricing is explicitly posted on the app during prime time, Council member Bill Spelman said he did not agree with the practice.

Chris Johnson, a senior policy associate with ride-sharing app Uber, said Uber is working to ensure that everyone has access to their agency.

“We do have a staff here, and we’re learning the nuances of the city,” Johnson said. “We are looking to continue to build relationships with the community.”

The council also passed a resolution to look at the city’s existing sound ordinance. After Austin police and fire department officers informed students the current city sound ordinance would be enforced more strictly, students became concerned that the rules would hinder West Campus events and parties. Leah Bojo, policy aide for Riley, said the procedures to obtain a permit would be almost impossible for students.

“The cops have said you’re not going to be able to get these permits,” Bojo said. “It’s reasonable to think that students want to have parties, and they need to be safe and respect the quality of life of other residents.”

Under the resolution, City Manager Marc Ott will present city code amendments defining a “private party” to the Council on Nov. 20.