The City Council deferred a vote Thursday on a proposed change in city law that would clear the way for Uber and similar cellphone-based ride services that are popular in other cities to begin operating in New Orleans.
Councilman James Gray, who proposed the deferral, said he believes the council will eventually pass an ordinance to that effect. But he argued that two proposed amendments to the ordinance, as well as other potential changes that hadn’t yet been scheduled for debate, deserved more scrutiny.
“I think we ought to spend serious time and study on deciding exactly what form this will take,” Gray said. “I think we ought to be as deliberate as we can in shaping what we bring to the city. The fact that we have amendments that are showing up for the first time today tells me we have not been as deliberate as we should be in looking at the total package.”
The council voted 4-3 in favor of putting a vote off until its Sept. 4 meeting, with President Stacy Head and Councilmen Jason Williams and Jared Brossett voting against the delay.
The proposal has been heavily debated in the council’s Transportation Committee, and a crowded council chamber suggested the matter would draw many additional public comments Thursday.
Supporters say the ride-sharing service would lead to more and better transportation options for New Orleans residents and visitors. Opponents say it would damage the operations of existing limousine and taxicab companies and put consumers’ safety at risk. The proposed ordinance focuses exclusively on limousine and luxury-car service in New Orleans. It would remove the requirement that limousines be reserved for a minimum of three hours and would adjust the rate structure to make shorter trips more practical. In so doing, it would allow Uber Black, a premium car service, to enter the New Orleans market.
Existing law bans the service and others like it, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has proposed making at least a segment of Uber’s service available locally.
The proposed changes in the law are intended to give New Orleans the ability to keep up with technological advances in the transportation industry and to provide rules to govern those advancements, the administration has said.
Landrieu senior adviser Ryan Berni said Thursday’s delay was unexpected.
“We would have preferred that it move forward today,” he said. “I think we’re going to continue to work with all the stakeholders and get something together so that we can adapt to the modern technology that exists today.”
The vote on deferral was unusual. A call for deferral usually comes from an item’s chief sponsor and then is handled without a vote or discussion.
This ordinance was introduced by Brossett and Williams at the request of the Landrieu administration. But the deferral was requested by Gray, who interjected before the administration could make a presentation on the ordinance and just after Head had called for public comment.
“I tried to check to see whether or not this is appropriate,” Gray said. “But given all the amendments and other things that we’re going to consider, I would like to move that we wait until we have a consolidated total plan in place to vote on the whole thing at one time rather than doing it piecemeal, as it appears that we’re going to have to do.”
Two amendments to the ordinance, one from Williams and another from Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, were up for approval.
Williams’ amendment would reduce the proposed minimum total charge for a luxury sedan from $25 to $15. Ramsey’s amendment would make it illegal to charge customers for using an internet application to book or cancel a ride. It also would require that customers be sent a receipt with information including the driver’s identification, as well as the distance and date of the trip within 15 minutes of the trip’s completion. The current ordinance gives 24 hours for that information to be provided.
In addition to the amendments, two other ordinances, both sponsored by Brossett, which would alter the current ordinance were introduced Thursday for future action.
The first proposes to create a new class of “certificate of public necessity and convenience,” or CPNC, the permit required to operate a taxicab or other for-hire vehicle in New Orleans. Class A CPNC holders would have to possess at least two stretch limousines no more than 5 years old. The change would clear the way for new CPNCs to be issued to independent luxury car drivers who do not have a fleet of vehicles.
Brossett’s second ordinance would establish a fine of at least $300 and jail time of not more than five months for for-hire drivers who violate city laws. It also seeks to define the mobile-phone based ride companies and the service they provide.
Before voting against the deferral, Head said she was comfortable passing the legislation Thursday and following up with other rules later on.
“I am supportive of moving this portion forward because it is limited to allowing Uber to contract with current limousine companies who want to,” Head said. “While it is not complete and comprehensive, it is a thoughtful way to start embracing this new technology and allow these type companies into the market in a limited and regulated way.”
Although the ordinance is intended to apply only to luxury car service, much of the opposition has come from the taxicab industry, which applauded the deferral.
Drivers have said that Uber represents unfair competition because it wouldn’t be subject to the same standards of operation that cabs are required to follow. Last year, the council passed a package of laws that, among other things, established a maximum age of seven years for cabs operating in New Orleans. Noncompliant cab owners run the risk of losing their CPNCs, the expensive and limited-quantity permits that allow them to operate on city streets.
Hundreds of owners made significant capital investments in newer vehicles and other required equipment with the expectation that entry into the for-hire marketplace would be limited.
Williams said he understands the exasperation cab drivers feel. He has introduced an ordinance to raise the maximum age of cabs and loosen restrictions on the type of credit card machines drivers can use.
“I understand that a lot of the heartburn for this app technology does not really come from app-based technology. It comes from many of the strenuous regulations that were put on a fragile taxicab industry at a time when they did not have the financing to evolve, but they were forced to evolve,” Williams said. “After going through very tough months of trying to meet those new regulations, the thought of a new transportation entity being able to operate without similar regulations is frustrating.”
But he said it is time for the city to embrace change.
“I do believe that it’s time to take some steps and move forward,” he said. “This city has a problem moving forward. And when you stay the same and every other city is moving forward, it means you’re going backwards.”