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Uber threatens to leave Houston if fingerprinting continues there

Uber has notified Houston that it has a problem with fingerprinting.

The company sent a letter Wednesday to the Houston City Council complaining of what it says is a cumbersome city licensing process for ride-hailing service drivers, and the ride-hailing giant lobbed an open-ended threat to cease operations there if the rules aren’t changed.

Allowing Uber to screen drivers using the name-based criminal background checks it prefers, instead of the fingerprint-based checks required by Houston, would be a good start, the company’s letter suggests.

“We know that many of you have inherited these challenging regulations and we are optimistic that we can work together in the next few months to bring Houston’s rules more in line with the rest of the country,” Uber’s Houston General Manager Sarfraz Maredia wrote to the Houston council. “However, if the city refuses to act, we will have to cease operations just as other ridesharing platforms previously did.”

Lyft left Houston after the regulations were passed in 2014.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in a press conference hours after the letter landed on his desk, gave no quarter on the issue of fingerprinting.

“The city of Houston does not compromise on public safety,” Turner said. “We would love for them to stay, but only if they follow our rules. There are plenty of other law-abiding companies that are willing to respect our laws and provide safe transportation to Houstonians.”

The Uber missive comes at a politically propitious juncture for the ride-hailing company. Uber and Lyft are locked in political combat in Austin and early voting is underway on Proposition 1, an initiative to abolish Austin’s requirement that ride-hailing service drivers be fingerprinted for criminal background checks here. The election is May 7.

Houston’s regulations, passed by an earlier council in August 2014, have become a political chess piece in the Austin election. The message from those who oppose Prop 1 is that since Uber had accepted fingerprinting in Houston, such a requirement in Austin is reasonable and workable.

Wednesday’s letter to Houston rebuts that notion. Perhaps all too conveniently, according to Turner and Dean Rindy, a longtime Austin political operative working on the effort to defeat Prop 1.

“It is ironic that we got the letter today when there is an election going on in Austin,” said Turner, who said that Uber officials had met with him two months ago and said nothing about possibly pulling up stakes in Houston.

Rindy called the timing “quite a coincidence. … Their polling must show that people in Austin don’t understand why they would accept fingerprinting in Houston and New York, but not here. So they have a sudden desire to talk about it again with the people in Houston.”

Uber’s letter and an accompanying three-page report say that “onboarding” ride-hailing service drivers in Houston takes up to four months because of the city’s “ten duplicative, time-consuming, and expensive steps to obtain a license to drive on a ridesharing platform.” The company asserts that 20,000 people in Houston have applied to be Uber drivers since the Houston rules went into effect in November 2014, then never followed through because of the trouble it takes to get a license.

As a result, Uber says, the demand for ride-hailing is rising twice as fast as its ability to bring more drivers on its app. Because of that, the letter says, ride-hailing customers in Houston are more likely to encounter increased “surge” prices because demand more often exceeds the supply of Uber drivers.

But Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in Houston’s Administrative and Regulatory Affairs Department, said a recent survey of Uber drivers there showed that almost 46 percent of them required less than a week to get a ride-hailing service license in Houston. She said that about 84 percent said the process lasted less than three weeks.

Uber doesn’t disclose to the media or public how many drivers it has working in Houston, and Turner noted that Uber had obtained a court order preventing city of Houston officials from releasing that information.

“The fingerprinting checks are not slowing down Uber from getting the drivers they need in Houston,” the mayor said. “That’s a red herring.”

Uber’s letter and report don’t mention that Houston has a process under which a driver can get a 30-day “provisional” license without first going through fingerprinting. But according to Uber, a Houston driver, even to get that provisional license, must complete a physical, take a drug test, appear at Houston municipal court to get a check of outstanding criminal warrants, buy a fire extinguisher for the car, get the car inspected by a city inspector and get an Uber identifying marker for the car.

The Austin ordinance that would be abolished if Prop 1 passes doesn’t have a process for a provisional license. But it also doesn’t require drivers to take a physical or drug test, or have a city-administered vehicle inspection.

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