Miami-Dade County

Pro-Uber bill wins early vote in Miami-Dade after foe stands down

Uber drivers get seated at the Miami-Dade County Commission meeting Wednesday.
Uber drivers get seated at the Miami-Dade County Commission meeting Wednesday.

Uber won a legislative showdown before it began Wednesday as its leading foe on the Miami-Dade County Commission withdrew proposed rules that the ride-hailing company aggressively opposed.

After Chairman Jean Monestime’s surprise move, commissioners gave preliminary approval to rival legislation that Uber supports and the taxi industry opposes. A final vote remains months away, but the scuttling of Monestime’s insurance and registration proposals marked a significant victory for Uber and its recent ad campaign against the two-term commissioner.

“I am making this decision to allow us to begin 2016 in the spirit of cooperation,” said Monestime, a real estate broker who drove a cab in Miami during the 1980s to help pay for college. “We will ultimately approve model legislation on this issue — hopefully, a model that other municipalities, other counties and other regions will follow.”

His withdrawal of a proposed ordinance he had unveiled just a week earlier does not mean Monestime and other Uber critics on the commission can’t fight for rules that the company opposes. But it did clear the legislative arena of a proposal that Uber said would force it to leave Miami-Dade if enacted.

Monestime’s bill was an alternative to pro-Uber legislation, which allows the company and smaller competitors, such as Lyft, to screen their own drivers and avoid the 24-hour commercial insurance that Miami-Dade taxis must carry. The three pro-Uber ordinances, sponsored by Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, easily won a preliminary vote before the commission Wednesday by a 10-2 margin, with only Monestime and Commissioner Dennis Moss casting “No” votes. (Commissioner Javier Souto did not attend the meeting of the 13-member board.)

“The clientele base for Uber and Lyft have spoken loudly,” Bovo, the commission’s vice-chairman, told reporters earlier in the day. “They’re here to stay.”

Pro-Uber legislation has died before in Miami-Dade’s legislative pipeline, and commissioners heard from taxi drivers and owners at the meeting who complained of Uber scoffing at local for-hire regulations designed to keep passengers safe. They also warned that Miami’s tourism industry would lose its taxis if Miami-Dade adopted Bovo’s plan to let Uber self-screen an unlimited number of part-time drivers and forgo the 24-hour commercial insurance that taxis must carry.

“This is a death certificate for the taxi industry,” cabbie Gerard Raphael said to the commission. “I understand your position, but you have to be fair.”

The commission vote moves Miami-Dade closer to approving rules that would legalize Uber, which has thrived in Miami-Dade since 2014 despite its drivers receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from county inspectors for violating for-hire-vehicle rules.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, an Uber supporter, has proposed settling the fines for about 55 cents on the dollar, and told reporters before the commission meeting that Miami-Dade needs to retire what he called antiquated rules that don’t allow for app-based ride services.

“They have now created a new market that I think the taxi industry should actually take advantage of,” Gimenez said of Uber and Lyft, whose combined fleets are estimated to be two or three times larger than Miami-Dade’s 5,000 licensed taxi drivers. Gimenez said the county’s system of capped taxi licenses amounted to “a controlled economy, very similar to the Soviet Union. Uber and Lyft are something different.”

But taxi advocates argued that surrendering to the San Francisco-based tech giants will hurt the county’s poorer residents, who depend on cabs for transportation.

“How many people in Dade County don’t have an app?” asked Diego Feliciano, president of the South Florida Taxicab Association. “Don’t have a charge card, only have cash, don’t have credit. Are we leaving them stranded?”

Though taxi drivers made up the majority of speakers Wednesday, Uber drivers far outnumbered them in the audience. Dozens of Uber drivers, most wearing black T-shirts touting the neighborhoods where they pick up passengers, filled the red spectator seats in the commission chambers in what County Hall regulars expected would be a marathon session of public speakers.

But after Monestime’s morning announcement, which Uber lobbyists said took them by surprise, the company asked drivers to yield their speaking time in favor of a local representative.

“I want to thank Chair Monestime for withdrawing your item, and for your commitment to moving ride-sharing forward,” Kasra Moshkani, Uber’s Miami manager, told commissioners before the vote. “We look forward to having a permanent home here in Miami-Dade.”

The Bovo legislation would dismantle some of the county’s taxi regulations and create a system in which Uber, Lyft and other competitors could screen their drivers for criminal backgrounds and driving violations. Miami-Dade currently conducts those screenings for taxi drivers, as well as mechanical inspections for cabs. Under Bovo’s legislation, cab companies as well as app-based providers could screen their own drivers and vehicles. County screening for English proficiency, knowledge of tourist attractions and customer-service training also would be abandoned.

Bovo’s legislation also mandates a significant technology upgrade for taxis, with cabs required to offer cellphone apps to allow passengers to hail the vehicles, rate drivers and use GPS software to let their taxis be tracked in real-time by app users. That’s a central feature of Uber, which is booked exclusively by cellphone apps. Uber also allows rates to soar as more passengers request services, while Miami-Dade requires set fares for taxis.

Uber sees momentum from Broward County’s legalizing the service last year, particularly since commissioners there backed off restrictions that prompted Uber and Lyft to briefly halt service within the county. Uber lobbyists said Monestime’s proposal threatened a repeat of Broward, and last week ran radio ads criticizing him and urged its thousands of Miami-Dade drivers and customers to contact their commissioners to oppose his proposal.

Monestime gave no public hint of his planned withdrawal of his ordinance. Late last week, he said he could accept modifications that would allow Uber and competitors to screen their own drivers and accept the companies’ policy of providing commercial insurance only when a driver is in the process of fulfilling a ride request.

His shift follows a contentious stretch for Monestime, who began the year briefly flirting with a challenge of Gimenez in the 2016 mayoral race. In December, a brewing feud with Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who challenged Monestime in the 2014 chair election, spilled into public over a fight of an Edmonson proposal that the chairman had kept off the agenda.

In explaining his move on the Uber legislation, Monestime said he was surprised that media coverage of his proposal hadn’t focused on what he said was a top priority: ensuring that at least 1 percent of vehicles are accessible to wheelchair users. Monestime said he was confident that proposal could be rolled into Bovo’s legislation and did not want to heighten tensions with rival ordinances.

“It is important for this board to remain united as a collegial body,” he said. “Based on the complexity of this issue, I do not want this board to be overburdened by reconciling multiple proposals for the legislation of ride-sharing in Miami-Dade County.”

Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.