An ordinance that would govern the way companies such as Uber can operate in Jefferson Parish still isn’t ready, but discussion on the deferred item at Wednesday’s Parish Council meeting included accusations that drivers with the high-end Uber Black service are hustling work in-person in front of Louis Armstrong International Airport, which they aren’t supposed to do.
Uber Black, which uses professional drivers and luxury cars, was approved by the New Orleans City Council last year, though the broader UberX service still hasn’t entered the market as New Orleans and Jefferson council members separately hammer out the rules that would regulate such ride-hailing services.
Those services — including Uber, Lyft and SideCar — use apps on mobile devices to connect people who need a ride with drivers who have registered with the companies and use their own vehicles.
On Wednesday, several cab operators, a spokesman for Uber and the two council members proposing the Jefferson ordinance all agreed the measure needs more work, and it was deferred until April 29.
Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, who has worked with Councilman Ben Zahn on the ordinance, noted the New Orleans City Council is scheduled to take up the issue before then. New Orleans City Council members have said they plan to vote on April 9.
While Uber entered the Baton Rouge and Lafayette markets fairly quickly and easily, local governments in the New Orleans area have had to spend more time considering the concerns of taxicab companies and drivers, who fear their new competitors will have an unfair advantage because they won’t have to deal with many of the regulations that taxis do.
“We are also concerned about the enforcement of the rules that you are going to pass,” said Niran Gunasekra, vice president of the cab drivers union Local 234.
He said New Orleans has talked about levying a 50-cent fee on each app-generated ride to pay for enforcement, and he suggested Jefferson do the same.
One enforcement officer, Gunasekra said, “is not going to cut it.”
“I have pictures of Uber Black,” he said. “They constantly come and park in the passenger lanes of the airport, and they hustle passengers. There’s no enforcement in place. So you can pass all the rules and laws, but if you have no mechanism to enforce it, it’s an issue for us.”
Brian Trascher, spokesman for Uber Technologies efforts in New Orleans, called the accusation “absolutely false,” prompting several audience members to say they’ve seen Uber drivers soliciting business.
Trascher said the only way to use the service is through the app: The rider uses it to hail the driver and pays through the app.
“There is no cash transaction whatsoever,” he said. “It’s only electronically billed.”
Gunasekra said Uber Black drivers who should be waiting nearby in the short-term parking lot can instead identify themselves to riders, and the two can agree to do the ride off-the-books.
Trascher said riders know they are not using Uber if they simply pay cash to a person who says he is an Uber driver. In explaining how and why Uber should be regulated differently from the taxi industry, Trascher said Uber is a technology company that links users to providers, not a cab or limousine company.
Contacted later, airport spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut said the airport “has not received any complaints of Uber Black drivers soliciting fares curbside.”
Council Chairman Chris Roberts asked why Uber doesn’t issue identification cards for its drivers, adding that the placards drivers now post in their windows could be faked with a computer and a printer.
He dismissed Trascher’s contention that someone also could pretend to be a cab driver, saying that would be far more difficult to do.
The proposed ordinance would apply only to the unincorporated areas of Jefferson Parish, and users cannot see any available rides on their apps while in cities such as Kenner or Gretna. However, rides can end up in those cities if that’s where the customer wants to go.
The ordinance calls for drivers of any ride-hailing service to undergo criminal background checks dating back seven years. It would require that their cars be no more than 10 years old.
Daniel Herbert, of Metairie Cab, said state law prohibits people from transporting others for hire without a special license and a for-hire commercial license plate. “How are (Uber drivers) above that state law?” he asked.
Lee-Sheng said the parish considered doing background checks on drivers with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office but found Uber’s third-party system to be more comprehensive, pursuing driving records in addition to serious crimes.
“We want the system that captures … and disqualifies the most drivers,” she said.
Trascher said many cab drivers who have applied to be Uber drivers have been rejected by its background check system.
Herbert said he thinks a level playing field is achievable, but it will take more negotiation.
“We’re willing to work with anyone … but it has to be fair to us as well or it’s going to hurt a lot of employees and drivers,” he said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.