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Future of Uber in St. Louis still up in the air

Future of Uber in St. Louis still up in the air

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A meeting expected to end the debate about rules for ride-hailing companies instead ended with no decision, highlighting the lingering divide between regulators and Uber as well as angering many when no vote was taken.

Shouts from audience members deriding the commission as pointless punctuated the meeting Wednesday of the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission, which governs vehicles for hire in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Some commissioners had strong words as well, especially about Uber’s public-relations efforts. Tom Reeves, president of Pulaski Bank, called the company’s marketing a “simplistic soundbite campaign.” He said the commission’s intent had always been to find a way to get Uber to operate here.

Commissioner Kim Tucci, owner of the Pasta House restaurants, was more blunt.

“Uber has depicted this commission as a bunch of jamokes,” he said, employing a slang word used to describe someone who’s a screw-up or dimwit.

Chairman Lou Hamilton said no vote would be taken on code changes to allow ride-hailing services out of deference to Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Steve Stenger, who appoint commission members and who want rules that all sides can live with.

So the question remains whether a compromise can be reached that will satisfy commissioners who say Uber’s safety checks don’t go far enough, while including provisions to accommodate Uber’s business model.

Two proposals made on code changes to allow “transportation network companies” such as Uber — one written primarily by Hamilton and the other by Uber — were ultimately too different, said Mary Ellen Ponder, Slay’s chief of staff.

“There needs to be a middle ground,” Ponder said, adding that neither proposal would have appeased both sides.

She said another meeting would be set to include representatives from Slay’s and Stenger’s offices, as well as from the taxi commission, cab company owners, Uber and any other ride-hailing companies who want a seat at the table. That meeting could come as soon as Friday.

The proposal authored by Hamilton is an addition to the current code. It would require drivers working through a ride-hailing platform to possess a class E chauffeur’s license, undergo fingerprint-based background checks and provide a statement from a physician that the driver is physically capable of “safely operating a vehicle for hire and providing reasonable assistance to disabled, elderly, or frail passengers.”

UberX drivers would not be allowed to pick up passengers at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport without permission from the airport commission.

But it would require that drivers be fingerprinted. State law, says Hamilton and other commissioners, does not allow it to waive the requirement.

Uber says its background checks are thorough and calls the fingerprint mandate burdensome for its drivers, half of whom drive six or fewer hours a week.

It says such a rule would prevent it from coming to St. Louis.

The taxi commission backed down this month from a demand that UberX drivers be drug-tested. Cabdrivers must be drug-tested and undergo fingerprint-based background checks.

Uber’s proposal basically requested that ride-hailing services be exempt from the bulk of regulations imposed on other vehicles-for-hire.

Uber says St. Louis is the largest metropolitan area in the country not to allow UberX, an app-based ride-hailing service in which drivers use their own cars to ferry passengers. It’s one of the services offered by San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc.

Hamilton said at the beginning of the Wednesday meeting that public comments would be taken for 30 to 45 minutes, but ended them after about 25 minutes. The move angered many in the crowd, including Ed Domain, a vocal critic of the commission and a strong supporter of allowing UberX to operate here.

Domain, who was badly injured in a 2013 crash while in a Harris cab, walked to the microphone and yelled, “coward, coward.”

Some, including Domain, left the meeting in anger with security officers escorting them out.

Those who spoke in favor of ride-hailing services included Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a candidate for governor, and Randy Vines, an owner of the STL-Style shop on Cherokee Street. Vines said out-of-towners couldn’t believe it when he tells them Uber isn’t allowed to operate in St. Louis.

“They are dumbfounded. They don’t believe it,” he said of their reaction.

Sagar Shah, St. Louis general manager for Uber, said he was disappointed there was no vote and in the lack of transparency in the process.

“I think collaboration is the way to get this done,” he said after the meeting, which was held in the theater of the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College to accommodate a larger-than-normal audience.

State law requires that four members of the commission, which includes eight members and a chairman, be from the local taxi industry. Three members currently are, but a taxi driver is supposed to be on the commission as well. That spot has been vacant since August 2013. The decision of whom to appoint is up to County Executive Steve Stenger, who was elected in November.

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