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Alabama House Committee Draws Two Distinctly Different Portraits of Uber

The pictures came due to a bill that would set up a statewide framework to allow Uber, Lyft and similar companies to operate all over the state.

by Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser / May 1, 2015
Uber, a California-based company, is seen in two different lights in Alabama. Flickr/ Adam Fagen
(TNS) -- Two portraits of Uber were drawn at an Alabama House committee meeting Wednesday evening. One was of an innovative firm that gave retirees and people in money troubles an income and something to do.

"When I was in Auburn, everybody loved Uber, especially the girls," said Harry "Pete" Poole, a Montgomery resident who drove a car for Uber in Auburn and said the company created jobs. "There would be four or five of them. They'd call you to pick them up. Their parents would say, 'Don't use taxi drivers, use Uber.'"

The other was of a company that stubbornly refused to negotiate with local municipalities over existing regulations, and – according to one speaker – tried to thwart attempts by one city to enforce their laws on vehicle-for-hire.

"We do not oppose technology," said Michael Fleagle, an attorney with the city of Birmingham. "What we oppose is a company that comes to us, does not negotiate in good faith and resists any regulation."

The pictures came due to a bill sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia, that would set up a statewide framework to allow Uber, Lyft and similar companies to operate all over the state. Williams' legislation would put regulation of the companies under the Public Service Commission; charge the companies an annual permit fee of $5,000; and impose certain requirements on drivers, including insurance, vehicle inspections and background checks.

Williams called the legislation a "free market bill" that would spur innovation in the transportation area, and supporters of the bill agreed. John Lyda, a Hoover city councilman, said the bill would allow "choice and competition" in his municipality, where he said hire-for-ride services were limited.

"The free market does not exist in my area when it comes to ride technology," he said.

Although the bill covers other companies, the debate focused on Uber, which operated briefly in Auburn and Tuscaloosa in 2014, and made an ultimately unsuccessful effort to penetrate the Birmingham market. Dave Barmore, a public policy associate with the company, said there were 9,000 drivers signed up in Alabama ready to offer rides.

"We welcome regulation," Barmore said, saying their technology allowed people to make money on the side.

But representatives of the cities questioned Uber's welcoming attitude, saying the company resisted any efforts to conform to local regulations aimed at ensuring the safety of drivers and riders.

Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa, who works as a city attorney for Tuscaloosa, said the company resisted efforts to negotiate over those regulations. England also accused the company of attempting to "thwart" the city's efforts to enforce its laws after Tuscaloosa officials delivered an ultimatum to the company, such as cutting off credit cards the city was using to stop drivers.

"This legislation takes away cities' ability to regulate them," England said. "In my opinion, cities will do a better job than the PSC will."

Twinkle Cavanaugh, the president of the PSC, did not take an official stand on the legislation, but said in remarks to the House Commerce and Small Business Committee that the agency would need more staffing to carry out the tasks under the bill.

"We no longer have any officers that go out and enforce (the laws)," she said. "That's at ALEA. We would not have actual enforcement. We would have auditing and regulating through auditing."

Existing taxi companies also opposed the bill, saying they incorporate the same technology that Uber does but operate under stricter regulations.

"This bill creates a separate category for an industry that already exists," said Paige Coker, vice president of Yellow Cab of Birmingham. "Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, this is the largest taxi company in the world."

Others suggested the business filled a need. Will Lochamy, a radio show host, said he used to run a bar and was frustrated by attempts to hire cabs to take drunken patrons home, saying there never seemed to be enough.

"The yellow cabs are fine," he said. "They're just not enough."

The committee took no votes on the measure Wednesday. As with the speakers, feelings about the legislation were mixed. Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, who said he used Uber, asked why the annual permit fee was $5,000 when other states charged as much as $75,000. Williams said it was something he could look into.

Rep. Louise Alexander, D-Bessemer, voiced concerns about reports of sexual assaults by Uber drivers and asked Barmore for numbers. Barmore said he did not have a list, but said the company took any incidents seriously and performed background checks on drivers.

©2015 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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