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Broward agrees to Uber's demand, pushes friendly law forward


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Uber is one step away from returning to Broward County — and coming closer to legitimacy in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties as well.

A majority of county commissioners voted Tuesday to send an Uber-friendly law to a final vote on Sept. 17, which would almost assuredly usher Uber back to Broward's streets. Commissioners heard an hour of public input and debated for an additional hour and a half before voting 6-3 to embrace the legal changes Uber is demanding.

The popular California-based startup uses a smart-phone app to connect riders with drivers who use their personal vehicles.

The company retreated from Broward County this summer, refusing to offer its service here under the regulations commissioners had passed.

Resistance to Uber is futile, Broward commission learns
Uber is wrangling with leaders in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties as well, pushing for favorable laws that would allow it to self-regulate when it comes to checking out drivers and their vehicles, setting fares, and deciding how many vehicles to unleash on the roads.

Local governments heavily regulate traditional taxis on those issues, and elected officials in South Florida and beyond have been reluctant to trust Uber or any other corporation to regulate itself.

The company's insurance, using a surplus carrier, also has been an issue in South Florida. The most controversial element of Broward's latest proposal would allow Uber — or any other "transportation network company" — to operate temporarily with insurance that county staff believes is "not in compliance with state law.'' The company would have six months to get a determination from Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles that its insurance is sufficient.

Though Uber has infuriated elected officials with its defiant approach, it has been wildly successful in harnessing the power of the public. Broward and Palm Beach commissioners have said in recent weeks they've been convinced to let go of heavy regulation, by the Uber-riding public.

"I despise Uber. I detest this company,'' said Commissioner Stacy Ritter, part of the pro-Uber majority on Broward's County Commission. Nevertheless, she said she wouldn't be accused of protecting the traditional taxi industry, which she said has ignored the obvious need for improvement and must "evolve or die.''

Ritter said more people are tuned in to this issue than any other in her 17 years in office.

"What we tried to do is make the riding public safe,'' Ritter said. "The riding public doesn't care.''

"Yes" votes to move the Uber-demanded rewrite forward were Commissioners Ritter, Mark Bogen, Beam Furr, Marty Kiar, Chip LaMarca and Mayor Tim Ryan. "No" votes were Commissioners Barbara Sharief, Lois Wexler and Dale Holness.

Palm Beach County commissioners walked away from a stricter regulatory scheme, fearful Uber would behave as it did in Broward, and leave. A vote on Uber friendlier measures is scheduled there Sept. 22.

Miami-Dade County commissioners likely will vote on Uber-legalizing laws in the coming year, said Mike Hernandez, director of communications for Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

"Mayor Gimenez and his administration will continue to work with our commissioners to bring our regulatory code into the 21st century,'' he said, noting that there are an estimated 10,000 Uber drivers in the county.

Uber's South Florida office is in the Brickell district in downtown Miami.

Meanwhile, two other app-based ride services, Tappxi and MyRide+, have obtained licenses to operate in Broward. They want to partner with Uber, providing drivers.

And so does Yellow Cab. Yellow Cab President John Camillo said he's been asking Uber representatives for two years to allow his cab drivers to operate on the Uber app, as is done under the UberTaxi service in Washington, D.C. and other markets. But he hasn't gotten a clear answer.

"Pinning Uber down is like trying to pick up mercury with tweezers,'' Camillo said.

Camillo fought Tuesday's legal compromise, asking commissioners to retain a requirement that drivers undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Yellow Cab also fought the insurance compromise, calling it unconstitutional.

Attorney Mark Stempler, representing Yellow Cab, warned commissioners that "Broward cannot allow [transportation network company] vehicles to operate 'legally' in the county, under its ordinance, for six months while in violation of Florida law.''

But Mayor Ryan said he suggested the provision to avoid a long detour into the courts. Uber attorneys believe their insurance coverage meets state requirements; Ryan said the six months gives the state Legislature time to approve an insurance product tailored for drivers like Uber's, who only partly use their vehicles commercially.

The proposed changes to Broward's law would allow Uber or other companies to certify to the county that all drivers underwent a background check and had their vehicles inspected. The county would be able to audit the records to spot-check for compliance.

Commissioner Holness said the county has already seen that Uber isn't forthright.

"We're going to trust these people?'' he asked. "If we do, we need to have our heads examined.''

Under the proposal, Uber would also have to negotiate an agreement to serve the airport and seaport, paying fees for each trip there. Accommodations would have to be made for disabled passengers. Vehicles would have to bear distinctive signage. Passengers would not be picked up curbside as a street hail without using the app. And drivers would have to submit Social Security numbers to Uber.

Uber's public policy director for the Southeast United States, Trevor Theunissen, said there are "some issues'' in the proposal that need to be reworked, but he was confident it could be resolved.

"I think we're well on our way there and look forward to the 17th having a fully baked piece to bring to you,'' he said.
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