Transportation

Council Mulls Policy Change to Bring Uber Back to Eugene, Ore.

Uber might return to the Oregon city after a look at potential city policy and a number of driver requirement changes.

by Christian Hill, The Register-Guard / November 15, 2017
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(TNS) –– Eugene city councilors Monday night opened the door slightly for a possible return of Uber.

They agreed to schedule a future work session to discuss possible changes to city policy and regulations on driver background and vehicle checks and insurance requirements that Uber and other ride-hailing services might find more palatable.

City councilors said that protecting public safety and preserving a level playing field with local taxi companies would be of paramount importance during those discussions.

"I'm willing to entertain that conversation," Councilor Chris Pryor said, "but I'm willing to entertain it in a fair and balanced format."

Councilor Jennifer Yeh added: "I feel like it's very doable. I think we can get there."

The council's direction gave a jolt to an issue that largely has been dormant for more than two years.

But even if the city councilors were to make changes, and Uber or other ride-hailing services find them acceptable, it's unlikely they would operate before the first of the year, city officials said.

Uber operated in the Eugene-­Springfield area from July 23, 2014, to April 5, 2015.

It stopped after a city hearings official ruled the company must secure a license to continue operating in Eugene. The city requires companies that operate vehicles that transport passengers for money to secure a license.

Uber's failure to secure the license led the city to impose daily fines against Uber and eventually to sue in Lane County Circuit Court.

In appealing the fines, Uber unsuccessfully argued before the hearings official that it was a technology company and didn't need to secure a license. City officials countered that it's a transportation provider, little different from taxi companies.

To settle the lawsuit, Uber agreed not to resume operations in Eugene without a license and paid a reduced fine of $92,000.

Before Uber suspended operations, city councilors had updated city policy to allow vehicles for hire to use smartphone applications to calculate and charge fares, opening the door for Uber, Lyft and other so-called transportation network companies, or TNCs.

But Uber has opposed three minimum safety rules that city officials say TNCs and taxi companies must follow to comply with a license.

The city required a criminal background check of for-hire drivers through the Eugene Police Department's database. Uber has said its third-party check is more than sufficient.

The city requires proof of a mechanical inspection of a for-hire vehicle plus a quick check for seat belts and fire extinguishers by a city inspector.

Uber, which contracts for third-party vehicle checks, has said city vehicle permitting is unnecessary.

Finally, the city requires all for-hire drivers to carry a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance whenever they are working.

In Uber's case, that's when the driver is available to pick up a customer, transporting a customer and driving away after dropping off a customer. Other cities have allowed Uber to operate with varying levels of insurance when drivers are picking up, transporting or after dropping off customers.

Several city councilors say they were open to revisiting the insurance requirements, but they were sharply divided over changes to background checks.

On Sept. 20, Uber announced that it would begin operating in Corvallis.

A month later, on Oct. 31, the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce launched an email campaign for its members to urge "city staff and elected officials to make the updates to our local codes that would support these companies to service our Eugene-Springfield community, while looking for solutions that create a level playing field for current taxi companies."

"In the past year, communities like Bend, Corvallis, Medford and Salem have all allowed companies like these to operate in their communities," the chamber's email said.

City councilors received more than 100 emails the first day.

Caroline Lafferty, an executive with SnoTemp, a Eugene-based cold-storage business, wrote in an email that there aren't enough cabs in Eugene, and she's been told she would have to wait two hours for a cab.

"Whenever we have friends visiting us, they are always surprised and disappointed that we don't have ride-sharing, and it is a strike against our city for visitors," she wrote.

She also noted that residents are more likely to drink and drive with few for-hire transportation options in the city.

One of the recommendations outlined in the draft Vision Zero plan to stop all traffic deaths and serious injuries in Eugene by 2035 is to "pursue (a) TNC presence in Eugene."

Earlier in the meeting, Jim Conlan, a dispatcher and former driver for Oregon Taxi, the city's largest taxi company, said the 500 taxi drivers in the area serve the whole community, including the needy and wheelchair-bound, and look beyond corporate efficiency.

"We provide a lot more than that as taxi drivers," he said.

In an email, Nathan Hambley, Uber's regional spokesman, said the company has worked with other cities in Oregon, including Salem, "to develop modern transportation regulations that Eugene can look to as a model."

"If the Eugene City Council were to adopt similar regulations that would allow ride-share companies to operate in the city, we would consider resuming service there," Hambley said.

The city of Eugene handles for-hire transportation services for the city of Springfield, and Sarah Medary, the interim public works director, told city councilors that officials in the neighboring city have made it "very clear this is something that they want in their community."

©2017 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.