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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Adversaries in Taxi Business Discuss City Rules

Posted By on Thu, Aug 6, 2015 at 7:17 AM

click to enlarge Stakeholders discussing Burlington's vehicle for hire ordinance at Contois Auditorium - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Stakeholders discussing Burlington's vehicle for hire ordinance at Contois Auditorium
On Wednesday evening, the mayor, a cop, a city councilor, a couple of longtime taxi drivers, an Uber lobbyist and several others sat in a half circle talking about how Burlington should regulate taxis and other cars for hire.

The public meeting — the first of three — marked the beginning of the city's efforts to revamp the ordinance governing these vehicles.

Burlington's city council rewrote this ordinance in 2009, but the the arrival of the ride-hailing company Uber, coupled with complaints about ineffective enforcement, prompted officials to undertake the task a second time.

Chief administrative officer Bob Rusten told participants that the goal this time is to create an ordinance fit for the 21st century. Splitting into two groups, the attendees discussed some of the sticking points about Burlington's current regulations.

Local cab drivers have been fiercely critical of Uber, which began operating in Burlington last fall and recently entered into a temporary operating agreement with the city. But on Wednesday, Uber reps and local cabbies sat next to one another, along with other stakeholders, and contemplated what regulations their services require. 

Fred Solomon, a longtime cabbie, suggested that Burlington should conduct background checks on all vehicle-for-hire drivers, including Uber's. The company currently conducts its own.

Laura Shen, an Uber rep, responded politely that outsourcing that responsibility to the city was likely a "nonstarter" for the company — a phrase she would repeat several times during the discussion. 

The group contemplated whether the city should eliminate the requirement that all taxis charge a standard meter rate, which some drivers allegedly manipulate. And it considered whether traditional taxis should be able to adopt Uber's "surge price" strategy — a controversial policy that consists of jacking up prices when demand for rides is high. 

Mayor Miro Weinberger stayed mum for most of the brainstorming session but when the issue of licensing fees was raised, he piped up with an idea: What if the city started charging a fee per ride — similar to how it levies the rooms and meals tax — rather than charging a fee per driver? (Under the temporary operating agreement, Uber currently pays $5,000 rather than paying per driver, which traditional taxi drivers have argued is unfair.)

Weinberger's suggestion was met with silence.

"Well, there's a hot one," said city attorney Eileen Blackwood, who was moderating the discussion.

Traditional cab drivers seemed a bit taken aback. After a moment, Shen responded, "So, I think Uber doesn't love that." Shen clarified a moment later: "It could be a nonstarter for us."

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Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese is a Seven Days staff writer.

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