Uber ran a thriving, renegade business for two years in Miami-Dade, treating $4 million in county fines as a start-up expense as its growing ridership helped pressure lawmakers to change the taxi laws to accommodate the popular ride-hailing option.
On Tuesday, county commissioners approved a deal letting Uber pay half of the fines levied against its drivers, a settlement that some bashed as unfortunate given the county’s financial straits and the company’s deep pockets.
“This is a $50 billion company, worldwide,” said Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. “A $2 million additional allocation is basically a rounding error in their budget. … I really believe they should step up to the plate and pay the full amount.”
Uber reached a similar deal with Washington, D.C. last spring.
The negotiated settlement wraps up one of the final loose ends of Uber’s lobbying and public relations campaign to legalize app-based ride hailing in Miami-Dade. Commissioners passed a law in May 2016 legalizing Uber, Lyft and other app-based competitors to taxis, which have seen business plummet since the popular services came to town.
After launching in the Miami market in the spring of 2014, Uber told drivers it would cover fines from county inspectors and used company lawyers to fight nearly 5,000 citations issued over the 24 months before Miami-Dade legalized the service.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the commission chairman, championed legalizing the service with the fines still outstanding. Gimenez presented the $2.4 million cash settlement as the best Miami-Dade could hope for, since going for the full $4.3 million would involve pursuing drivers in more than 2,000 administrative hearings. Uber would then likely appeal the rulings to the court system, since the company has maintained the county had no laws governing ride hailing that its drivers were violating.
Uber lobbyists pushed an alternative to the company paying any money to the county in the settlement. Instead of fines, Uber would offer $4 million in discounts to customers hailing rides to certain county Metrorail stations and bus stops as a way to encourage more transit use. But commissioners needed at least some cash in the deal, since it had already voted in September to spend $1 million of any future settlement helping two museums.
When approving the county’s $7.4 billion budget for 2018 in late September, commissioners welcomed the potential for extra dollars from Uber to address pet projects. The 13-member body voted to allocate $500,000 to fix the air conditioning system of the Miami Children’s Museum on Watson Island, and another $500,000 for a charity being formed to pursue a county museum dedicated to African-American history. The commission also voted to allocate any remaining settlement dollars to a county fund to subsidize affordable-housing projects.
September’s budget vote still held out the option of taking $1 million cash for the museums and letting Uber settle the rest of the fines with discounted rides. But on Tuesday, commissioners rejected the idea of using Uber fines owed the county to pay for Uber rides. “Why should we trust them now?” Commissioner Barbara Jordan asked. “ I was really insulted they had the audacity to try and influence this vote.”
The board voted 9 to 2 to accept the $2.4 million cash settlement, with Commissioner Javier Souto joining Barreiro on the No side. The budget allocations for the settlement dollars remained intact, though $100,000 was shifted from housing to expenses related to a special county court for offenses involving veterans. The settlement also requires Uber to pay $267,000 to the county clerk’s office, which processes citations. Lyft, Uber’s smaller competitor, will be offered a similar settlement, but its drivers face less than $300,000 in fines.
The settlement came during a meeting when commissioners also voted to save about $4 million for the county’s beleaguered transit system by cutting bus routes. The popularity of Uber and Lyft are partially blamed for a nationwide decline in transit ridership as some would-be passengers opt for the ride-hailing services.
Before the discussion, Uber executive and lobbyist Cesar Fernandez said the company was eager to remove the “black cloud” the fines represented to drivers in the three years since Miami-Dade began citing them.
“I want to to thank you,” Fernandez told commissioners, “for your patience.”