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Friday, September 18, 2015

Uber Launches in St. Louis Today, Defying — and Suing — Taxi Commission

Posted By on Fri, Sep 18, 2015 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge You won't have to hail a cab today if you want a ride across town — Uber says it will launch throughout the St. Louis area. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/OOZNU
  • Photo courtesy of Flickr/ooznu
  • You won't have to hail a cab today if you want a ride across town — Uber says it will launch throughout the St. Louis area.

Ready or not, here Uber comes.

Frustrated by resistance from local regulators, the ridesharing company announced this morning that it's launching its UberX service in St. Louis today, even without regulatory approval — and also that it's filed a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Taxi Commission, or MTC, alleging antitrust violations.

"After more than a year of delays and maneuvers designed to block rideshare services from St. Louis, today’s events come as a last resort to provide residents with the same transportation options they have in other cities," the company announced. 

The suit was filed this morning.

By launching without MTC approval, Uber seems to be daring the city to arrest its drivers and attempt to shut down its services, despite polls showing a strong majority of residents support bringing ridesharing here. St. Louis is the largest city in the U.S. without UberX service.

And a shutdown is not beyond the realm of possibility. Last spring, fellow ridesharing company Lyft made a similar move as Uber is attempting today, putting drivers on the streets without the blessing of regulators. Not only did some of its drivers get arrested, but a judge issued an injunction barring the company from the market. That combo doomed Lyft's efforts to operate here.

See also: 10 Important Sentences from the Judge's Ruling Against Lyft in St. Louis

But Uber's decision seems a bit more calculated. The company has received public backing from Mayor Francis Slay, and with the lawsuit against the MTC, it's making the case that it attempted to work with regulators over the last year — only to be blocked by a recalcitrant commission more interested in protecting the interest of taxi drivers than offering a level playing field.

Four of the nine members of the MTC are taxi company executives.

Uber has timed its announcement to become public at 10 a.m. — the exact time that an MTC meeting begins in Clayton. At the meeting, the commission is poised to vote on a proposal that it says could allow ridesharing in St. Louis. But Uber says that the proposal — which requires fingerprinting, background checks by the highway patrol, and other regulations for drivers — would doom its entry to the market.

An alternate proposal by Mayor Slay, which Uber favored and which created a less onerous path for drivers, was discarded by MTC Chairman Lou Hamilton. 

Hamilton, a lobbyist, was originally appointed to the MTC by Mayor Slay. However, he was more recently reappointed by County Executive Steve Stenger and, despite the mayor's pro-Uber position, Hamilton is now aligned with anti-ridesharing interests.

See also: Still No Path for Uber to Come to St. Louis, Company Says

Uber has filed its antitrust suit in federal court on behalf of a few residents who say they are frustrated by the city's poor taxi service. One of them is Marsha Wallen, a Creve Coeur resident who is legally blind.

“When I’m in other cities, I have the freedom to Uber whenever I want,” Wallen is quoted in a press release saying. “I deserve to have the same transportation options in St. Louis that people have in other cities. But because of the MTC’s anti-competitive conduct, I am forced to navigate my daily life while depending on unreliable, unaccommodating, expensive taxicabs when there is a better way.” She said she has spent hours in malls, restaurants and grocery stores, waiting for taxis. Another plaintiff is a St. Louis woman who drives for UberX in East St. Louis. She'd like to work for Uber in St. Louis, but has been stymied by the MTC.

Uber's ridesharing service, UberX, is already in use on the Illinois side of the river. Presumably the drivers working there have been given the company's blessing — and technological backing — to pick up riders in St. Louis. The number who will risk it to make such pickups, however, is not clear.

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