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

Uber doesn’t have a license to operate in Spokane, but hundreds of its drivers do

Heather Moreau, a driver for both Uber and Lyft, waits for a rider in her Subaru on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, at Spokane International Airport in Airway Heights. Uber, which objects to the requirements of city laws adopted by the Spokane City Council in 2018, is not licensed to operate in the city. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Hundreds of drivers are licensed to drive for Uber in Spokane, but the company itself is not.

The ride-hailing company deploys dozens of drivers across the city, but has not obtained a license to operate in Spokane because it objects to the requirements of city laws adopted by the Spokane City Council in 2018 and enacted last January.

In a January 2019 letter to the city, an attorney representing Uber argued that vehicle inspection and driver licensing requirements enacted by the city are overly onerous. More than a year later, the company has yet to come to an agreement with the city and receive a license to operate.

As of 2019, there are more than 100 for-hire transportation companies licensed to operate in Spokane, but Uber is not one of them. Under the city laws adopted in 2018 – and that went into effect in January 2019 – Uber and Lyft are referred to as “transportation network companies” and are subject to special regulations.

To receive a license – which costs $55 annually – drivers for ride-hailing companies are required to undergo a background check and have their vehicle inspected and approved by a National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence mechanic.

In its letter to the city, an attorney representing Uber said there are only “a handful” of mechanics certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence in Eastern Washington, making the volume “unmanageable.”

In its response to Uber’s letter, a city official listed 12 local shops with certified mechanics.

Since adopting the laws, hundreds of drivers have applied for and received a license. The city has issued 639 driver’s licenses for the current year, and issued more than 700 last year, the first under the new laws.

Given the volume of its drivers in Eastern Washington – both those based in Spokane and those who pick up here – Uber is concerned about the processing times for license applications.

Although it acknowledged a rush of applications when the new laws were enacted, the city is now processing applications and awarding licenses on the same day, according to officials.

In a statement to The Spokesman-Review earlier this month, an Uber spokesperson said the company pledges to resolve its issues with the city.

Under the law, the city imposes a surcharge of 10 cents on every trip that begins within the city limits. Despite its objections to city regulations, Uber continues to perform well in Spokane, based on the per-trip surcharge it has paid to the city. Last year, its rides resulted in $51,565 of revenue for the city, compared to $41,085 for Lyft.

The majority of drivers, 405, are licensed to drive for both Lyft and Uber. There are 137 drivers licensed to drive only for Lyft, compared to 22 for only Uber. There remain 72 drivers licensed only to drive a taxi.

In addition to the per-trip surcharge, the city also saw a surge in revenue from driver’s license fees after adopting the new laws. In 2018, it collected $15,196 from driver’s license fees, compared to $80,534 in 2019.

Meanwhile, the Spokane City Council will consider tweaks to the laws governing companies like Uber and Lyft.

Driver’s licenses expire every year on Oct. 31, but under the proposed changes, they would expire one year from the date they are issued.

City staff has proposed adding language that clarifies medical transport vehicles are not subject to the same laws as companies like Uber and Lyft.

The proposed amendments would have to be taken up and approved by the City Council.