Uber’s top foe on the Miami-Dade County Commission backed off two key demands Friday in an increasingly public fight with the company, which is warning customers it will leave the Miami area if new regulations on the ride-hailing service take effect.
Commission Chairman Jean Monestime said he was “open” to allowing Uber and its competitors to screen their own drivers for criminal history and traffic violations, rather than require Miami-Dade to conduct the background checks. Monestime also said he could exempt Uber and other well-funded companies from the county’s requirement that for-hire vehicles carry commercial insurance 24 hours a day.
Both requirements are flashpoints for Uber in Monestime’s proposed legislation, which is competing with a pro-Uber ordinance submitted by the commission’s vice-chairman, Esteban “Steve” Bovo. Both are set for preliminary votes Wednesday before the 13-member commission.
At a press conference Friday morning, Monestime played down the conflicts, saying he was committed to legalizing Uber and ending its nearly two years as an outlaw provider of a popular, app-based alternative to taxis.
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“Vice-Chair Bovo and I have sponsored similar legislation, but with different provisions,” Monestime said. “A consensus will emerge.”
His comments came after Uber threatened to leave Miami-Dade if Monestime’s legislation became law, and signals the latest high-stakes political battle looming over a company that operates a thriving business despite violating the county’s for-hire vehicle laws. While taxis must charge county-set fares and are limited in number, Uber has no ceiling on fees and uses customers’ cellphones to pair them with an unlimited fleet of freelance drivers.
Shortly after Monestime spoke, Uber released an ad with the chairman’s photo under the message: “Jean Monestime wants to take away safe, reliable transportation options in Miami-Dade.” A company representative said the ad would run online and target his constituents in District 2.
Uber, and its smaller competitor Lyft, launched in 2014 with a strategy used successfully across the country: absorb penalties from local regulators while flooding the market with the high-tech alternative to taxis, and then use the popularity of the service and the fleet of drivers — reportedly topping 10,000 in Miami-Dade — to put pressure on politicians to change the laws.
Pro-Uber legislation failed twice before in Miami-Dade, but company representatives see an advantage after Broward County passed similar rules last year. Miami-Dade’s northern neighbor briefly enacted restrictions Uber opposed, and the company shut down service while urging drivers and passengers to demand more favorable rules. Commissioners complied in the fall.
Monestime’s proposed ordinance is “an attempt to be hostile,” Uber Miami’s general manager, Kasra Moshkani, said outside the chairman’s press conference. “It is putting regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles in place that would make it impossible for drivers to continue to earn income, and provide the services to thousands of people who depend on them for reliable transportation.”
Bovo later issued a statement praising Monestime “for his decision to join me” with Uber legislation, but said Miami-Dade needs a “more comprehensive approach” than what the chairman offered.
One of the differences in the competing bills deals with the screening process for Uber drivers. Bovo grants Uber’s request to allow the company to check drivers’ records, with county inspectors able to audit the records. Taxi companies also would have the option to screen their drivers, rather than submit their paperwork to county administrators.
Monestime’s proposal requires Uber and taxi drivers to undergo county screening, but it eliminates the need for in-person testing and orientation in favor of a system designed to be conducted entirely online. On Friday, Monestime said he was open to revising that requirement in favor of Uber’s approach for self-screening.
“If a company wants to do the background check and certifies it, I would consider using that,” Monestime said. “I just want to be able to ensure the public that the drivers picking them up are good drivers, and also trustworthy citizens.”
Another contrast between Bovo and Monestime’s legislation concerns insurance requirements. Bovo’s legislation would allow Uber to provide commercial insurance only from the time a driver agrees to pick up a passenger until the trip concludes. After that, the driver’s own state-required insurance would be in effect. The Monestime bill requires 24-hour commercial insurance, which matches current taxi standards.
Monestime told reporters he was concerned that future competitors to Uber and Lyft wouldn’t have the same financial resources (investors currently value Uber at more than $60 billion) to responsibly provide that kind of limited coverage. He said his legislation could be rewritten to include capital thresholds to let companies with the “unique type of insurance to opt out of the standard insurance requirement.”
Even with votes slated for Wednesday, Miami-Dade remains months away from resolving the Uber controversy. Commissioners could vote either piece of legislation down at the meeting, or choose to send the competing versions forward together.
They then would be subject to public hearings that Monestime said would take six weeks to schedule, given notification rules for ordinances that also impact local cities. He also said he might call a workshop to give industry representatives more time to weigh in on the proposed changes before sending the legislation to the commission for final votes.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez has faulted Monestime in the past for delaying the Uber deliberations, and representatives for the company privately say they’re confident Bovo’s legislation has the votes to prevail. Gimenez supports Bovo’s bill, and summoned reporters to his 29th-floor suite after Monestime’s remarks to criticize the chairman’s proposal as a “non-starter” for Uber.
“We have tens of thousands of people who probably use Uber and Lyft every day,” Gimenez said. “We can’t have legislation that basically drives Uber and Lyft out of business. That’s not fair to the people of Miami-Dade.”
Monestime said his office received hundreds of calls and emails since Uber launched an email campaign Wednesday that urged its drivers to contact him.
Monestime is the commission’s first chairman of Haitian-American heritage, and he drove a cab for five years in Miami when putting himself through college in the 1980s. Miami’s taxi industry is a popular source of employment for Miami-Dade’s Haitian-Americans, giving the Uber-versus-Monestime fight some symbolic heft.
“My only intention is to make these businesses legal,” Monestime said. “The reason I want to make them legal is because the public likes these ride-sharing services.”
At his press conference, Monestime was confronted by Marcos Diaz, who described himself as an Uber driver whose life was changed by the revenue he was able to earn with the company.
“I have three kids. This is the only job I have,” Diaz said. “It allows me to support my family.”
“I was in your position once before,” Monestime said. “Knowing there are a number of drivers whose lives have been positively impacted since driving for Uber, we want to make that legal — for you.”