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Uber wants to return to Austin, spokesman says

Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft left Austin after a bruising fight over city regulation, but the wheels are turning to bring the companies back.

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The ride-hailing company Uber may return to the state's capital despite leaving Austin in May after a bruising fight with the city over regulation of the industry, according to Trevor Theunissen, the company's public affairs lead. 

We are willing to negotiate, and we are willing to participate [with the city council] in a discussion on how to move forward. We want to come back here,” Theunissen said at an Austin event Thursday night.

In December 2015, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance requiring drivers for ride-hailing companies — such as Uber and Lyft — to perform fingerprint background checks on drivers, a stipulation that applies to Austin taxi companies.

Uber and Lyft fiercely opposed the rules, gathering petition signatures to force a public vote and spending nearly $9 million on an unsuccessful campaign asking voters to overturn the regulations. During Thursday’s event, Theunissen called the background checks “incomplete and discriminatory.”

Despite Uber and Lyft’s relentless campaigning, nearly 56 percent of Austinites voted against the companies — rejecting Proposition 1. Following the campaign results, spokespeople for both companies called the loss hugely disappointing, and each immediately halted services in Austin.

Theunissen said that since leaving, Uber associates have been on “listening tours” throughout the city to address the concerns of the community. However, he said he hopes the company can return to Austin in the near future.

“We want to be back in Austin and I think it’s a city Uber needs to be in,” said Theunissen. “I’m hopeful that there is a path forward, but there’s a lot of work to do. I’m hoping to get back to the city before the [legislative] session or after the session.”

But former Austin City Council member Laura Morrison said Uber needs to use fingerprint background checks in vetting their drivers if they want to operate in Austin. Speaking on behalf of Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, Morrison also said that the alternate background check methods Uber uses “are prone to critical errors.”

“Certainly, Uber is welcome to re-enter the Austin market if they are willing to operate under these rules, which all our other ride-hailing services abide by,” said Morrison. “It’s the law here, a law that the council enacted and a public safety standard that the people of Austin support. Uber operates in Houston and New York City and both require fingerprint background checks for Uber’s drivers. It’s a fair question to ask: Why does Uber think that Austinites should be subject to a lower public safety standard?”

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune before the event, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler said both companies would be welcome back to Austin “with open arms.” He added that there’s nothing stopping either company from returning.

“The mayor has always said that there is nothing in the ordinance preventing Uber and Lyft from choosing to return to Austin where they would be welcomed with open arms,” said Jason Stanford, the communications director for Adler’s office. “In the meantime, he's also always said that he would be happy to sit down with them to work this out but will not comment on whether these conversations exist to create a safe space in which they could occur.”

But the question of whether ride-sharing companies should be regulated — and, if so, who should regulate them — is one that’s continuously debated. On Wednesday, Uber reached an agreement with Houston to stay in the city — and to conduct fingerprint background checks on its drivers — through Super Bowl LI, which Houston is set to host on Feb. 5, 2017.

On Monday, the first day of bill filing for the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers filed two bills that could either put the power of regulating the companies in the state’s control or let them go without regulations.  

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed Senate Bill 176, which would require national background checks for drivers and require that users be able to request wheelchair-accessible rides. In addition, state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, filed Senate Bill 113, which would prevent cities from imposing “burdensome” regulations on transportation network companies, including taxi companies and ride-hailing firms. It would also put rules governing those companies in the hands of the state. 

“The ride-for-hire industry keeps asking for the same thing — a fair and equal market — and I agree,” Huffines said in a news release. “Let’s tear down regulations to create a truly free market for every ride-for-hire business — whether it’s Uber, Lyft or a more traditional taxi cab. ... In my experience as a businessman, freer markets mean more competition, and more competition means a better deal for the consumer.”

During Thursday's event, Theunissen said he hopes the Legislature passes a bill during the upcoming session that would regulate ride-sharing at a statewide level.

“Transportation inherently crosses citywide boundaries,” said Theunissen. “We don’t regulate trucking or moving vans at the city level. Our goal is to have consistent regulatory framework across the state so that everyone has access to Uber.”

Read more about Uber and Lyft here:

  • Austin's Proposition 1, a ride-hailing ordinance supported by Uber and Lyft was defeated in early May. With all precincts reporting, 48,673 voted against the ordinance and 38,539 voted for it.
  • Representatives from Uber and Lyft urged lawmakers to adopt statewide regulations for the ride-hailing industry during a Texas Capitol hearing. 

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Steve Adler has been a financial supporter of the Tribune and is a former Tribune board member. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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