Expect to see far more Uber passengers riding in the backseat in Miami-Dade County.
The ride-hailing company had encouraged Miami-Dade drivers to put passengers in the front as part of a strategy to avoid detection by county inspectors enforcing local laws that bar the app-based alternative to taxis. But on Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners on a 9-2 vote passed ordinances that legalized the Uber business model, which uses freelance drivers charging fees that rise and fall with sales.
Following nine hours of public comments and debate, commissioners adopted legislation that also dismantles some of the county’s regulation of taxis and shifts screening of for-hire drivers from local regulators to the companies themselves. Taxi drivers will no longer have to undergo county customer-service training or government auto inspections, but will be required to offer the same kind of app-based hailing software that Uber and its smaller competitor, Lyft, rely on exclusively for selling rides.
“Our approach was not to have government insert itself into something that the public seems to want,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the sponsor of the pro-Uber legislation now slated to become law. “But how can the taxi industry come into the 21st century and become competitive?”
Voting against the three ordinances in the package were Commissioners Bruno Barreiro and Daniella Levine Cava. Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who is on trial in Key West on a 2015 drunken-driving charge, and Javier Souto did not attend the meeting.
The vote means legal approval for an already thriving Miami-Dade business for Uber, which claims to have more than 10,000 drivers operating in the county. While encouraging drivers to be discreet, Uber and Lyft have pledged to cover close to $4 million worth of county fines issued against their drivers since the San Francisco-based companies launched Miami-Dade operations in the summer of 2014.
Taxi drivers say the new tech-heavy competitors, which let customers track their assigned vehicle in real time and then pay for the ride electronically, walloped their business as locals and tourists migrated to Uber and Lyft. Taxis must accept cash, charge regulated fares, and are part of a system that restricts the number of vehicles allowed to operate. Miami-Dade has only about 2,100 cab permits and licenses for roughly 4,500 drivers — numbers dwarfed by Uber’s reported fleet numbers alone.
Lawyers for taxi owners have already warned of pending litigation against Miami-Dade over the Uber bill, saying it has unfairly deflated the value of taxi permits (known as medallions) that are treated as property under local law. Mercedes Gonzalez Arango said her family owns two medallions that were valued at about $300,000 before Uber and Lyft came to Miami-Dade but now would probably only command about $40,000 on the resale market.
“The taxi drivers mortgaged their homes to buy medallions,” Gonzalez Arango told commissioners. “Now it looks like it’s down the drain.”
Critics of Uber and Lyft on the commission took aim at the companies’ practice of sending fares soaring when demand for service is highest, such as on New Year’s Eve. Levine Cava called it “price gouging.”
Commissioner Barbara Jordan pushed for fingerprinting of drivers, even though it presents complications for the companies and the drivers themselves. “To me, it’s worth it to make sure we are protecting our community,” she said.
Uber took the lead in the Miami-Dade lobbying fight, which began with some commission talks in 2013. The company valued at more than $60 billion suffered some early defeats against Miami-Dade’s for-hire industry, which includes taxis, limousines and the Super Shuttle provider at Miami International Airport. But Uber followed an approach that brought it success in other markets: launch in defiance of local laws, then build a constituency of drivers and passengers so large that political pressure builds on elected officials to sanction the operation.
On Tuesday, endorsements of Uber came from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, University of Miami (which said it is in talks to have Uber provide transportation for students and patients in its medical system) and Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“This is what our customer is used to globally,” said Bill Talbert, president of the Visitors Bureau, the county’s tax-funded tourism agency.
At the marathon session before the commission, Uber and Lyft lobbyists and their supporters on the commission beat back attempts to cap the number of vehicles they put in service, register all drivers with the county and mandate permanent decals identifying vehicles as part of a ride-hailing network. Mayor Carlos Gimenez agreed to come back to the commission with a proposed system for Uber and Lyft to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles, which is required of taxi companies.
One remaining flashpoint is the nearly $4 million in fines Uber and Lyft drivers incurred from county regulators, mostly at Miami International Airport. Gimenez has signaled he wants to negotiate a reduction of the amount to avoid legal expenses, but some commissioners scoffed at the idea of waiving fees for a company worth about 10 times more than Miami-Dade’s $6.7 billion annual budget.
The new legislation takes effect 10 days after passage, the legal window allowed for a veto by Gimenez. The mayor has championed the legalization of Uber and Lyft, and criticized the taxi industry for securing caps on cab medallions to restrain competition.
“Who suffers when you limit competition?” Gimenez asked when arguing against a brief effort to limit ride-hailing fleets to the number of limousines and taxis Miami-Dade authorizes countywide. “The people. The customers.”