A coalition of taxi drivers gathered outside of the San Antonio Taxis office on 10221 Desert Sands St. Monday to protest the City’s negotiation process with rideshare companies, such as Uber and Lyft,. They want the negotiations – which are centered around the operating agreements that the TNCs are currently under – to be more transparent. The group outlined a list of contract requirements that would address numerous public safety and competition concerns.

The demands are an eleventh hour effort, as the negotiations between the City and the rideshare companies, so-called transportation network companies (TNCs), are expected to conclude next week. The operating agreements expire at the end of October.

In an open letter to the City Council, Transportation Safety Coalition member Robert Gonzales outlined several contract stipulations that would satisfy his and other taxi drivers’ concerns.

Along with various pollution and market share controls, Gonzales said, the new agreement should include:

  • mandatory background checks for TNC drivers
  • mandatory drug testing for TNC drivers
  • the removal of the confidentiality clause
  • the creation of a driver registration list for the City and the police department
  • a cap on the number of vehicles allowed to participate in ridesharing in the city
  • mandatory full payment of City taxes, permit fees, and County taxes by TNCs
  • a noncompete clause with VIA

As it stands, the TNC agreement does not mandate the companies to require their drivers to complete fingerprint background checks. Instead, doing so is optional. This has been one of several sticking points in the arguments against the current TNC operating agreement, since some say that this diminishes public safety.

Uber users, for example, are able to see whether or not their driver has completed the fingerprint check, and have the option to cancel the ride and order another if they wish.

Gonzales also accused the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) of hiding criminal activity that is potentially being perpetrated by rideshare drivers.

Transportation Safety Coalition member Robert Gonzales asks for the same rights as Rideshare drivers. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Transportation Safety Coalition member Robert Gonzales asks for the same rights as Rideshare drivers. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“If I had to bet on (a cover up), I’d bet yes. We’re not confident that what’s occurring is coming out,” Gonzales said. “(SAPD) has been really cozy with them, and negotiating that contract with them. They haven’t been transparent.”

In a July memo to the City Council from the Office of the Police Chief, Assistant Police Director Steven Baum identified four incidents involving TNC drivers. Two cases in Alamo Heights were dismissed, one went unreported, and the other involved mistaking a driver for someone on the Department of Homeland Security Terrorism Watch List.

Gonzales also pointed to the reports of background checks of Houston Uber drivers last year, where the criminal history and aliases of several drivers were unearthed, pointing to a flawed system utilized by the third party company Uber uses to screen drivers.

“We have communicated with the City of San Antonio about our concerns over the lack of transparency over the new (ridesharing) contract that is being negotiated,” Gonzales said. “We ask them to have some type of public forum available so that the public knows exactly what is being negotiated.”

During the summer, two public meetings and an online survey were conducted by the City to gather a wide range of opinions on the operating agreement. The general consensus among the taxi drivers was that they believe TNCs should have to comply with the same regulations outlined in Chapter 33 of the City code as the taxi, or traditional transportation for hire, industry. Others, some rideshare proponents, said that much of the code is in need of an update in order to adapt to a more modern urban transportation system.

Hector Garcia, a taxi advocate, said that the City is discriminating against the taxi industry, which is under much stricter regulations than TNCs.

“We want equal treatment for drivers. If Uber cannot join the regulations that taxi drivers have then taxi drivers would like to join Uber’s regulations,” Garcia said, repeating an argument made by some rideshare opponents that the taxi industry should be deregulated in order to level the playing field between them and TNCs.

“(Uber) is charging the same prices we did 25 years ago,” Gonzales added. “How is that fair? Make them pay the same taxes we do.”

After the initial task forces that Gonzales had been a part of didn’t work, he said, Mayor Ivy Taylor appointed Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) to negotiate the terms of the agreement “pretty much behind closed doors.”

In a Monday phone interview with the Rivard Report, Treviño said that wasn’t true.

“I would say that everything rideshare is one of the most public and reported on items that we have ever faced on (City) council,” Treviño said. “It’s been very open as we have been gathering data, and that will be reflected in the new operating agreement.”

Treviño argued that the data gathering and the public input is informing an agreement that fits for the city of San Antonio and is similar to the current document.

“It’s important to understand that these things are not just something that we look at in a vacuum,” Treviño said. “We’re also looking at ways to improve the taxi industry. We have to recognize that innovation impacts many parts of the community. Our approach allows us to make something that works for everyone.”

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with information in a memo from Chief William McManus’ office.

 Top image: Transportation Safety Coalition member Robert Gonzales (left) asks San Antonio Police Department to be more transparent about criminal activity by Rideshare drivers.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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James McCandless

Former intern James McCandless is a recent St. Mary's University graduate. He has worked with the San Antonio Current and Texas Public Radio.