Commissioner proposes way to make Lyft, UberX legal in Miami-Dade

Dade County commissioners are scheduled to take a preliminary vote Tuesday on a measure that would make the services legal.

07/14/2014 6:41 PM

07/15/2014 11:57 AM

They’ve been likened to mobsters, called criminals who should be thrown in the slammer and had their cars seized in undercover stings.

But soon, the renegade drivers in Miami-Dade County for ride-for-hire services Lyft and UberX could become something their adversaries can hardly fathom: legal.

A county commissioner has proposed overhauling regulations to allow the startups to operate — as they have been doing, in rogue fashion, for more than a month — without the threat of fines and car impoundings.

The legislation, by Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, is scheduled for a preliminary vote Tuesday.

Final passage is far from certain, Bovo said Monday, because it would require approval from a four-member transportation and aviation committee that he sits on which has deadlocked on major reforms to benefit UberX and Lyft.

“Obviously it’s going to go to a very difficult committee that has shown no desire to move forward,” he said. “But there’s been nothing progressive, no conversation that has warranted positive engagement. I’d hate to see that debate never happen.”

Hearings on how to deal with the companies, which use smartphone applications to bring together freelance drivers and passengers, have turned into hours-long affairs where Lyft and UberX promote their lucrative business and the established taxicab industry cries foul. Last week, a workshop on the issue lasted more than three hours. Two days later, the transportation committee delved into it for another 90 minutes.

More than once, speakers infuriated at UberX and Lyft for launching operations in violation of the county legal code called the companies and their drivers outlaws.

“It’s pretty synonymous, to me, like the Mafia,” taxi owner Akthar Kamal said Wednesday. He called for steeper penalties so that “nobody would ever dare to break the existing law.”

Commissioner Dennis Moss, the transportation committee chairman, referred in a public meeting last week to the companies’ illegal operations as “kind of a gangster move.”

Miami-Dade code-enforcement officers have issued at least 77 citations to Lyft and UberX drivers, including nine vehicle seizures. UberX is a ride-for-hire service different from Uber Black, the company’s signature, black-sedan service that it tried unsuccessfully to launch in Miami-Dade earlier this year.

County law protects the cab and limousine industries from competition, restricting the number of limousine permits and taxi medallions that can be sold. UberX and Lyft want permission for an unlimited number of drivers — which Bovo’s ordinance provides.

Last week, the Miami City Commission took a unanimous vote urging the county to reform its existing regulations to authorize digital dispatch providers. Miami Beach took a similar position in January.

“All the major cities have a true mass-transit system, and ours is like a piecemeal transit system,” Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez said. “I think this allows us to expand our options.”

Bovo’s staff worked with Lyft on his proposed legislation, which would create a new section in the county code to regulate “transportation network entities” as something separate from taxis or limos. A similar concept has been written into law elsewhere in the country.

The new rules would require not only the companies but also their drivers to register with Miami-Dade. Chauffeurs would have to cover the cost of having the county conduct a state criminal background check. Their cars would have to be no older than five years. And each vehicle would have to be covered by commercial liability insurance — around the clock, not just when drivers have a paying passenger on board.

Lyft and Uber say they conduct their own background checks and vehicle inspections, and provide sufficient supplemental insurance for their drivers. Attorney Jorge Luis Lopez, Lyft’s County Hall lobbyist, predicted the insurance question would be the crucial point for the county.

“That’s the clincher,” he said. “At the end of the way, a lot of work goes around guaranteeing that there’s the right coverage.”

Though it didn’t help write the legislation, Uber also appears supportive.

“It’s clear that South Florida residents want more transportation options, so it’s great to see the city is taking steps towards embracing new innovative solutions,” spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo said in a statement.

Bovo’s proposal would also prohibit drivers from discriminating against passengers and from picking them up on the street or at taxicab stands. Separately, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who supports the fledgling ride-for-hire industry, has said the county would also have to write rules for potential passenger pickup at the airport or seaport.

Gimenez also said he would like to somehow compensate taxi-medallion owners if the value of their investments drops as a result of the influx of ride-for-hire drivers — something Bovo’s legislation doesn’t address. Miami-Dade has 2,121 medallions, each worth more than $300,000 and considered a property right.

“Right now, I think we have one of the worst systems in the world,” Gimenez said.

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