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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Uber Says Impasse with Taxi Commission Could Scuttle St. Louis Launch

Posted By on Thu, Jun 11, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Taxi drivers in Chicago protest Uber. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/SCOTT L
  • Photo courtesy of Flickr/Scott L
  • Taxi drivers in Chicago protest Uber.

Uber says it could be ready to start taking passengers in St. Louis via its ride-sharing app, UberX, in a matter of days -- the only thing it's waiting on is regulatory approval.

But you might want to hold off on downloading the app just yet. The company's general manager for St. Louis, Sagar Shah, says that he believes Uber has reached an impasse with regulators at the Metropolitan Taxi Commission.

"We were having what seemed like productive conversations," he says. "But what they seem to be insisting on now is misaligned from the progress we thought we were making."

At issue: drug tests and background checks performed by the Missouri Highway Patrol. Currently, both are required for drivers regulated by the Metropolitan Taxi Commission -- which includes all cab drivers in St. Louis City and County, and will likely include Uber drivers, too. (The company's effort to craft a state ride-sharing plan to supplant local regulations failed to gain traction at the Legislature.)

Uber wants an exception to those two requirements. Unless the company gets it, Shah says, "it wouldn't work for us to operate here."

Lou Hamilton, chairman of the Taxi Commission, says he's still working toward a solution. But, he cautions, Uber may not get everything it wants.

"The problem with Uber is that it's their way or the highway," he says. "We will try to get creative, but there are going to be sticking points." And at this point, he says, drug tests and state-run background checks will likely be among them: "If there's a way around them, we'll have to figure that out."

Shah says the company is not trying to shirk its duty to riders -- but it's convinced the Taxi Commission's requirements are archaic. The company does background checks of its own, but they're completed electronically, without the fingerprint component insisted on by the highway patrol. And it doesn't believe in drug tests -- because passengers can provide real-time information to dispatchers, Shah says, "in effect, every ride is a drug test." Drivers who seem loopy to passengers will quickly get drummed out of the system, which Uber believes is much more effective than the "snapshot" offered by a more traditional urine test.

Overall, Uber relies on being able to get drivers into its system quickly, without in-person screenings. "Fifty percent of our drivers work less than six hours a week for us," Shah explains. "When there's excessive red tape, that turns them off from signing up -- and it doesn't enhance safety."

Next: How a tweet disrupted negotiations

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