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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council to study cab rules; may suspend fees

Spokane cab drivers could soon face fewer regulations thanks to a new form of competition.

The Spokane City Council is considering the temporary elimination of fees on cab drivers and the permanent loosening of cab rules as it deals with new ride-sharing companies that have entered the Spokane market.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said the council likely will consider a six-month suspension of taxi fees before the end of summer. The action is meant to give cabs relief since the city has not imposed its “for-hire vehicle” rules on ride-sharing companies. In a six-month period, the city plans to write regulations to deal with ride-sharing and cabs.

Taxicab operators have complained that the entry into the Spokane market in May of two national ride-share operators, Uber and Lyft, created unfair competition. They have argued that drivers from Uber and Lyft should follow the same rules and pay the same taxes and fees that they do.

Spokane City Council members say they want to be fair to taxi drivers as they consider how to regulate Uber and Lyft. So far, talk has been dominated by loosening rules for taxis – not as much on tightening them on ride-sharing companies.

“One of the goals out of this is not to be stifling innovation,” Stuckart said. “In this instance, and in many, I think some regulations pile on themselves and get out of control.”

Taxi drivers pay about $155 in fees to the city each year. The city earns about $20,000 a year in for-hire taxi licensing fees and about $8,000 in business registration fees from taxis.

During the six-month study period, Uber and Lyft drivers have agreed to pay a 10-cent-per-ride tax to the city, Stuckart said.

According to city municipal code, a for-hire vehicle “includes all vehicles used for the transportation of passengers for compensation upon the streets of the City of Spokane.”

There are exceptions listed, but none that fit what ride-sharing companies do.

But drivers for Uber and Lyft say they operate differently from taxis and shouldn’t have to follow “for-hire vehicle” rules. They rely on mobile technology to arrange rides without a traditional dispatch, and customers and drivers agree to a price before the ride starts. No taxi meters are used. When a customer requests a ride, the apps provide a map showing where the nearest driver is and how long before the driver arrives. Uber and Lyft cars can’t be hailed like a taxi.

City Councilwoman Candace Mumm said a new system to regulate taxis and ride-sharing companies must be fair to taxi drivers. But she stressed that the city shouldn’t be too quick to eliminate regulations.

“I believe they were put in place to protect the public,” she said. “I still want to protect the consumer.”

The city has a long list of violations that can result in a “for-hire vehicle” operator losing his or her license. Among them:

• Using foul language in front of a customer.

• Using tobacco or allowing a passenger to use tobacco.

• Taking a route that isn’t the safest and most direct unless a customer requests otherwise.

Stuckart said he expects that after six months of study some rules will be eliminated, some will apply to cabs, some to ride-sharing and some to both.

“I’m not suggesting we eliminate them all,” he said.

Some of Spokane’s cab policy originated in 1980 to fix a system that was argued had become a threat to public safety.

At the time, a Spokane city councilman called “all” of the cabs running in the city “rambling wrecks.”

A vice president from Kaiser Aluminum complained in a letter to city leaders that he had only bad experiences when taking cabs to get to the airport three times within a month.

“Each time, the cab was dirty, in bad repair and only this morning, the front seat came loose and caused the driver to swerve on the slippery streets, almost causing an accident,” he wrote in his letter.

Also that year, State Liquor Control Board officials said cabs in Spokane were operating an illegal alcohol delivery service, sometimes supplying liquor “to minors and alcoholics who are incapacitated by the disease,” according to the Spokane Daily Chronicle.

In response to the concerns, the City Council tossed a rule that limited the number of taxi permits to about 100, most of which had been acquired by one firm.

City leaders argued that allowing more taxis would spur competition that would make taxis better. They also approved tighter rules on safety and cleanliness.

Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.