Proposal to allow more ride-hailing drivers irks Austin cab companies


Austin City Council will decide whether out-of-state driver’s licenses are enough for a chauffeur’s permit.

Students, and nonstudents in their first 90 days here, would not need a Texas license to get a permit.

Cab companies, which have seen their business hit hard by ride-hailing, opposed the measure.

The Austin City Council on Thursday will consider allowing college students and others with out-of-state driver’s licenses to get temporary chauffeur’s permits, a tweak worked out between the city staff and RideAustin to help the ride-hailing company hire more drivers while still getting them fingerprinted.

The potential one-page change in city law is not popular with at least some of the city’s beleaguered taxi companies.

“Since Uber and Lyft came back in, our income has dropped 60 to 70 percent,” said Hassan Aruri, who serves on the board of ATX Coop Taxi. “Right now there are a lot of (cab) drivers, but there is not a whole lot of work for us. To say they want to bring people from outside the state, this is unbelievable.”

The co-op franchise is one of four cab companies in the city, and together they have 1,200 permitted vehicles, about a third more than in 2014. The half-dozen or so ride-hailing companies operating in Austin are not required to say how many drivers they have providing rides on city streets.

RELATED: With Austin rules gone, Lyft drivers get back behind the wheel

Bobbi Kommineni, vice president of strategic programs for RideAustin, said the nonprofit ride-hailing company had not signed up any new drivers since a state law took effect in late May prohibiting cities from regulating ride-hailing. That state law, conspicuously, does not require fingerprint-based background checks of drivers, which aligns with Uber’s and Lyft’s practice of screening drivers with a document-based criminal background search.

But RideAustin wanted to continue to offer the option of fingerprinted ride-hailing drivers, Kommineni said, a priority of the Austin City Council that Austin voters supported in 2016 — only to have the requirement overturned by the Texas Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott.

The company and city officials decided that if RideAustin required its drivers to get chauffeur’s permits, as a matter of private policy rather than city law, then it could continue having them fingerprinted. Those permits, required of taxi, shuttle and limo drivers and not covered by the state law passed this spring, require fingerprinting.

However, city law also requires a Texas driver’s license to qualify for a chauffeur’s permit. That could be a problem for college students looking to make extra money driving for RideAustin, as students from outside Texas legally can continue to use their home state driver’s license throughout their years on campus. It could also delay chauffeur’s permits for nonstudents, who have 90 days under state law to replace their out-of-state license with a Texas version.

RELATED: Hear one cabbie’s take on fingerprinting requirements

The pending ordinance, Kommineni said, “was a proposal that Ground Transportation made to us,” referring to an office within the city Transportation Department that regulates ride-for-hire services.

Out-of-state college students granted the conditional permits would have to apply to renew the permit once a year. The nonstudent temporary permits would last just 90 days, and a driver would need to get a Texas license within that time to get a full-fledged chauffeur’s permit.

The backup documents for the proposed council action say that taxi franchises and “alternative mobility programs” are “suffering from a lack of qualified drivers due to competition in the ground transportation industry.”

But the proposal, if it was meant as a curative for the taxi companies’ woes, was apparently news to them.

“It’s a bad idea,” said Ron Means, general manager with Austin Cab, which pays almost $85,000 a year for its 187 cab permits. “I’m just hoping I hit the lotto so I can tell them what to do.”

ALSO AFFECTED: Fare leaves Austin, blames ‘loss of business’ amid return of Uber, Lyft

Robert Spillar, the director of the city Transportation Department, denied that the proposed ordinance was designed to benefit ride-hailing companies or RideAustin specifically. He characterized it instead as a way to remove “an undue requirement” from permitting rules.

“I don’t think it’s any challenge for the taxi companies,” Spillar said. “It just widens the range of people they can tap to be drivers.”

Billy Carter, who owns the Austin SuperShuttle service, said that unlike the cab companies and ride-hailing companies, which can use drivers as young as 21, his commercial insurance policy requires that his drivers be at least 25 years old. So Carter said the college students permitted under the proposed change, at least those of traditional age, would not be of use to him.

Carter said he doesn’t have enough drivers at this point and said he was hosting an orientation session for new hires Wednesday.

“It’s a tough market out there right now to find drivers, with the ride-share situation,” Carter said. “It certainly would make it quicker for people who are moving into Austin to get into the workforce.”

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