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Taxi Commission Clears Path For Uber Black In St. Louis

(courtesy of Uber)

Updated at 9:30 p.m. with comments from Uber.

The Metropolitan Taxicab Commission on Tuesday loosened some of the restrictions on premium sedan companies in the city, in an effort to convince Uber to enter the market. 

The San Francisco-based ride-share company wanted to open up the possibility of more competition in the black car market before it would even apply for a license to operate Uber Black here. The app dispatches already-licensed premium sedans from a smart phone.

The changes negotiated with the city and members of the vehicle-for-hire industry include:

  • Allowing older sedans on the road, but subjecting them to additional inspections.
  • Allowing black cars to park closer to a hotel without automatically being considered an illegal cab (200 feet versus 2,500 feet).
  • Removing the requirement that a premium sedan be booked at least an hour in advance.
  • Allowing a driver to use an app to prove that he's been summoned for a trip, rather than a written contract or trip ticket.
  • Eliminating the requirement that a sedan company have three cars ready to go before a license to operate is awarded.

The commission will also issue a limited number of premium sedan licenses to new and existing black car companies. Applications for that will open August 21. That's also the day by which commission chairman Louis Hamilton wants to release a definition of premium sedan and new quality control standards for those vehicles.
"Neither Uber nor heritage cab companies or limos are happy with every change," Mayor Francis Slay tweeted after the meeting. "That's the nature of compromise." He later praised the commission for passing the changes.

In its own statement, Uber called the changes a "step in the right direction," but expressed concern about the cap on the number of sedan permits, and on a licensing fee increase also approved Tuesday by the commission.

"We hope that Uber can soon provide St. Louis residents access to affordable, reliable, and expanded transportation options," the company said.

Although he voted for most of the changes, Basil Rudawsky, the president of St. Louis County Cab, was one of several who raised concerns about the order of the process.

"Why are we considering loosening vehicle standards for a company that owns no vehicles and has yet to apply for a CCN [ownership license]," Rudawsky asked rhetorically. He was especially concerned that allowing older cars to serve as premium sedans would erode the differentiation between a cab and a town car.

Hamilton, the commission chair, admitted the process could appear a little backward.

"I caution people all the time that when you're dealing with public policy not to be completely driven by logic," he said.

Jeff Rainford, the mayor's chief of staff, denied that Uber was being given anything.

"We're not writing them checks, we're not giving them cash," he said. "It's really the marketplace that should decide who and how transportation services are delivered. If people don't want Uber, they shouldn't use Uber," he said.

Uber has not yet said when it will apply for the license to operate Uber Black in St. Louis. Rainford said he'll let the dust settle from today before moving onto the next step:

What To Do About Lyft?

The changes announced today do not allow for the operation of UberX, where drivers use their own cars to provide rides arranged via mobile app. Lyft, which offers a very similar service, attempted to enter the St. Louis market in April, but immediately ran into legal trouble.

In granting a preliminary injunction last week, judge Joan Moriarty ruled that Lyft was a vehicle for hire and thus subject to regulation by the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission. Court filings made yesterday show that both sides have agreed to delay a permanent injunction hearing for almost a year, during which time the Lyft app will remain disabled.

In other business on Tuesday, the taxicab commission:

  • Boosted the application fee for a new Certificate of Convenience and Need from $150 to the maximum rate allowed by state law, which varies depending on the circumstances but never goes above $2,500. (That's the certificate you need to own a cab or sedan company. A separate license is needed to drive a vehicle-for-hire.)
  • Increased permit renewal fees for premium sedans to $500 per year. The same fees for taxis will also go up at a later date.
  • Tabled a motion that would have set a minimum $25 fee for premium sedan fares. The move was generally viewed as a way to keep Uber out of the market, and was vociferously opposed by the company.
  • Approved a license for Ride Leaf, a company that wants to operate golf carts-for-hire around Busch Stadium.

Hamilton, the commission chair, said fees had not gone up for nearly 14 years. But the Independent Taxicab Drivers Association, which has a heavily Muslim membership, called the CCN renewal fee retaliation for a lawsuit it filed two months ago alleging restraint of trade. Many of the drivers in the association own their own vehicles, but are forced to drive for existing companies because the MTC has limited the number of cab companies.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter. @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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