Car wars

Taxi industry to Miami-Dade commission: Jail rogue Lyft, UberX drivers

 
 
Private vehicles that work for Lyft feature pink moustaches.
Private vehicles that work for Lyft feature pink moustaches.
AP

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

How incensed are taxicab operators at rogue car services Lyft and UberX?

Running sting operations, fining drivers and taking their cars away — all of which the county has been doing — is just not harsh enough, one industry representative told Miami-Dade commissioners Wednesday.

He called those punishments “a joke” and demanded more: A little trip to the big house.

“Put the drivers in jail,” Rudy Gonzalez, the owner of U.S.A. Taxi, said.

And no time like right then and there: Industry lobbyist Susan Fried pushed for a “citizen’s arrest” of Lyft representatives at the meeting if they weren’t registered to lobby.

Another speaker called for a Lyft driver in the county commission chambers to be issued a ticket — on the spot.

The commissioners on the transportation and aviation committee did none of the above. Instead, they spent three hours listening to public testimony and debating what to do about UberX and Lyft. No conclusions emerged, with commissioners clearly perplexed about how to wrestle with the disruptive technology that allows passengers to request rides from private drivers via smartphone applications.

On one hand, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro said the government should consider taking Lyft and UberX, which are operating in defiance of county laws, to court.

“At what point is it, in your opinion, the proper legal time to take full action?” Barreiro asked an assistant county attorney, referring to a potential injunction. (The answer: not yet.)

On the other hand, Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said Miami-Dade should pass new laws to regulate the the companies, even if he’s unsure they will do well in car-loving Miami.

“We’re the biggest impediment to evolving — right here, at the Board of County Commissioners,” he said.

None of the four commissioners on the committee — even Jean Monestime, who has criticized taxicab owners’ dealings with cab drivers — favored the insurgent tactic employed by Uberx and Lyft to flout the law as a way to pressure politicians into action.

“They’ve been told their service is illegal,” Committee Chairman Dennis Moss said. “We can’t have folks coming in and just operating, setting up shop. The question becomes, where does it stop?”

Miami-Dade regulates “for-hire transportation,” which includes taxis and limousines. While UberX and Lyft say they are providing “ride-sharing” services that don’t fall under any of the laws on the books, the county considers the rides for-hire because passengers request and pay for them.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration has been fining Lyft drivers and, in at least four instances so far, impounding their cars in undercover stings run with the county police department. Lyft has been covering the drivers’ fines and other costs, including hiring an attorney to appeal the citations.

Gimenez, who made a rare committee-meeting appearance Wednesday, said his staff is enforcing the rules even though he wants the new technology in place.

“We need to change our regulations so that we can allow these kind of services to operate here,” he said.

Lyft staffers and their County Hall lobbyist, attorney and Gimenez confidant Jorge Luis Lopez, have met with regulators to draft a new ordinance for their services, which in other states have been deemed “transportation network providers.” Neither Lyft nor UberX employs drivers or runs its own vehicle fleet.

Uber, which in addition to UberX offers a luxury-car service known as Uber Black, was the first of the two companies to lobby Miami-Dade to reform its laws. But the idea foundered late last year at the hands of the same transportation committee that heard from Lyft on Wednesday.

Last month, with no notice to the county, Lyft threw a party and inaugurated its service, prompting fierce competitor UberX to do the same two weeks ago.

Tuwana Dumond, the Lyft driver who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, said giving rides helps her network and supplements her income as an actress.

“I believe in forceful change,” she said. “I don’t think what we’re doing on the streets is wrong. People deserve options.”

Among commissioners’ concerns were that unregulated car service could endanger passengers or lead to insurance headaches. Veronica Juarez, Lyft’s director of government relations, insisted the company accepts few drivers who apply, based on driver history and background checks.

She also said Lyft provides insurance if personal coverage doesn’t kick in when a driver is in an accident, though she acknowledged the insurance industry is also catching up to the car-service model.

“All we ask is that you maintain an open mind in addressing those concerns,” she told commissioners.

But cab company owners — many of them longtime County Hall fixtures who hold valuable taxi medallions that could be devalued by competition — were having none of it. They can’t compete with the likes of Uber, which investors recently valued at $17 billion, they said — while noting extensive protests against the company across Europe this week that paralyzed traffic in major cities.

“For 42 years, I followed all of your rules. Every driver out here has followed all of your rules,” said owner Jerry Moskowitz, who referred to Uber as a “honey bear that runs amok.” “ They went over your heads.”

Fried, the lobbyist for the South Florida Taxicab Association who called for the citizen’s arrest of the Lyft driver, offered a tongue-in-cheek ride to anyone who wanted to go home with her, since the county apparently wouldn’t care about regulating it, she said.

Then she defended the existing laws, which have protected the taxi industry.

“There’s nothing wrong with them,” she said. “If you want to get rid of the old regulations, we’ll go back to the Old West — become a group of gangsters.”

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