Jefferson Parish’s efforts to regulate ride-hailing services like Uber appeared to hit a dead end Wednesday, with the Parish Council rejecting a newly amended ordinance that was supposed to ensure fair competition with traditional cab companies and ward off lawsuits.
The ordinance was the brainchild of council members Ben Zahn and Cynthia Lee-Sheng, who met for many hours over the past six months with representatives from the taxi industry, insurance companies and ride-hailing services.
The New Orleans City Council recently went through a similar process, hammering out an ordinance just before French Quarter Fest earlier this month.
In Jefferson, however, attempts to reconcile the competing interests of cab companies and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft came out on the short end of a 2-5 vote, with Lee-Sheng and Zahn the only votes in favor.
Council members Mark Spears, Paul Johnston, Ricky Templet, Chris Roberts and Elton Lagasse voted against the measure, with some arguing the proposed rules would not create a level playing field for the more heavily regulated taxi industry.
The ordinance was defeated despite several amendments that passed moments earlier by a 6-1 margin, with only Lagasse voting “no.” Those changes would have increased fees for the new services and required drivers to undergo pre-employment drug testing, get a “certificate of public necessity” like cab owners, submit to vehicle inspections and provide law enforcement with their photograph and fingerprints, among other regulations.
The amendments were offered by Lee-Sheng and Zahn to address concerns about fairness raised by the taxi companies.
Zahn said the primary goal was to ensure the safety of Jefferson residents.
Daniel Herbert, of Metry Cab, said the changes were a major step in the right direction but still not enough.
Thomas Zorthian, manager at A-Service Cab Co., said Uber shouldn’t be allowed to come into the market with fewer regulatory burdens than cabs must operate under.
“We’ve played by the rules,” he said. “We’ve done what was asked of us. Then all of a sudden, this new company wants to come in and play by different rules. That’s not fair. That’s not what America is.”
Herbert said he still hasn’t gotten a clear answer on why Uber drivers don’t have to get commercial driver’s licenses and have marked plates on their cars.
“According to what the state says, we (taxis) have to do that,” he said. “How are they different in that aspect, that they don’t need that?”
Uber, for its part, said the changes would have amounted to a deal-breaker.
Tom Hayes, general manager of Uber Louisiana, told the council that an ordinance more like the one passed in New Orleans, which he said creates a “trust but verify” system, would allow the company to operate seamlessly across the metro area.
He said the New Orleans ordinance strengthened the background checks and drug-testing regimen for drivers while recognizing the accountability and instant feedback Uber’s technology brings to the service.
“Unfortunately, the amendments that are being considered do not do this,” he said. “They seek to implement a process designed for a taxi system where there is no mechanism to hold drivers and riders accountable on each and every trip.”
As she has several times before, Lee-Sheng said she thinks ride-hailing will inevitably become part of the consumer landscape and that the parish would be wise to make sure it has an agreed-upon system in place. Companies such as Uber and Lyft have begun operating in some cities around the country without ordinances, which sometimes has caused problems.
Uber issued a statement after the meeting saying “Jefferson Parish deserves the same access to safe rides and greater opportunity that residents in neighboring Orleans Parish, Baton Rouge and hundreds of cities around the world depend on. We look forward to continuing to work to bring ride-sharing to Jefferson Parish.”
It was not clear, however, whether Uber and other services will try to operate in Jefferson without authorization.
Lee-Sheng said she thinks enough time has been spent trying to come up with legislation everyone can get behind and that efforts to regulate ride-hailing services on the front end are finished as of now.
She said she feels the parish should be forward-thinking in fairly accommodating the new services, which she said are becoming part of life in many other cities. She said they provide more options for people who want to get around, help businesses with limited parking and keep drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.