- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 15, 2012

D.C. lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a billthat limits taxi regulators’ authority over sedan-on-demand companies as long as drivers are transparent about their fares and follow some consumer-protection rules, making the nation’s capital the latest American city to tackle 21st-century services that allow passengers to order up a ride with a few keystrokes on their smartphone.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said legislation that passed a first reading on Thursday hits a “sweet spot” in reconciling the city’s oversight of taxis, sedans and limousines, after one company, Uber, openly opposed regulation of its electronic-dispatch business model. Companies like Uber, which advertises itself as “your on-demand private driver,” allow customers to request a ride from sedan companies that partner with the firm by using an application for smartphones or the Web.

But many D.C. taxi drivers think these companies should play by the same rules as the city’s cab fleet as they have dealt with regulatory oversight for years.

The bill says dispatch-service drivers must provide a fare estimate to customers at the start of a trip and an electronic or printed receipt after the ride. Drivers must be licensed in the District and may not discriminate against passengers or avoid certain wards or neighborhoods. Also, they must follow “interjurisdictional agreements” by either driving passengers within the District or into the city, but not picking up and dropping off passengers in, say, Virginia.

Uber and similar companies have run into legal battles in New York, San Francisco and other cities as city regulators grapple with the best way to handle emerging technology that has revolutionized the public vehicle-for-hire business beyond the old-fashioned sidewalk hail. California fined Uber and two other companies $20,000 each on Wednesday for operating “high-tech taxi and limousine hailing services” without the required permits, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The company also has been sued in San Francisco and Chicago by taxi drivers who argue they are infringing on their business without following the same regulations, according to multiple news reports.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tussled with D.C. lawmakers earlier this year when a broad bill intended to improve the taxicab industry prompted the council to flirt with a minimum fare for companies such as Uber so they would not compete with traditional taxi companies. After a stern response from Mr. Kalanick and his supporters, the council carved out an exemption that allowed Uber to operate outside of regulatory oversight by the D.C. Taxicab Commission through Dec. 31.

In a letter Thursday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray urged the council to support the bill.

“This legislation continues to offer improvements to the public vehicle-for-hire industry while maintaining the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission’s exclusive ability to regulate and protect public vehicle-for-hire consumers,” he said.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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