Taxi companies said they want wholesale changes to Montgomery County’s taxi regulations, while Uber and Lyft drivers made the case for their companies to remain in operation during a public hearing on Tuesday.

The Council committee hearing in Rockville drew a standing-room only crowd, mostly of drivers from app-based “ridesharing platforms” such as Uber and Lyft, and drivers from local cab companies such as Barwood and Sun Cab.

Before the Council are three bills — one which would define Uber and Lyft as Transportation Network Companies and impose new regulations including licensing, vehicle maintenance standards and driver background checks.

Another bill would loosen some regulations on traditional taxicabs, but some have said the effort to even the playing field doesn’t go far enough.

The taxicab business is among the most heavily regulated industries in the county. Chapter 53 of the County Code dictates licensing, insurance, vehicle maintenance and pricing rules.

Much of the testimony on Tuesday — from both sides — focused on serving the elderly, disabled or low-income. Uber and Lyft rides are paid for with a credit card through a phone app.

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“Requiring cab companies to pick up the underserved all over the county while allowing these new companies to only service those with cell phones and credit cards puts us all — the drivers, the passengers, the county — at a complete disadvantage,” said Dwight Kines, a vice president with the company that owns Silver-Spring based Sun Cabs.

But many Uber drivers, who were provided black Uber t-shirts before the hearing, said they are serving county residents who otherwise might not have reliable transportation options.

Dana Evans, who owns the Daisy Baby & Kids shop on Del Ray Avenue, testified that she used to call Barwood and “every time” would have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for her cab to show up.

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“I could never really rely upon them to make my timing correct or know when I needed to get somewhere,” Evans said. “As a business owner and now a mom of three, it’s really important for me to get where I need quickly and reliably. Barwood was a wonderful service, but it is stuck in time and I’m glad Uber has filled that gap.”

Uber’s growth has county officials scrambling to balance the issues of fair competition and innovation, a problem governments across the region and country are facing.

In October, the D.C. Council passed a law that would require services such as UberX, Lyft and Sidecar to have certain levels of insurance coverage and background checks for drivers. Taxi companies protested.

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Uber DC regional manager Zuhairah Washington testified on Tuesday that the company would be open to similar legislation, but also said the company’s internal background checks are “in many ways far more thorough than the checks in place for county taxis.”

Washington said Uber would share suggestions for how to further refine the Transportation Network Company bill.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, introduced the bill after county transportation director Art Holmes wrote a letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stating his concern that the company operates like a taxi cab company without the proper county taxi licenses.
In response, Berliner penned a letter to County Executive Isiah Leggett to share his concern that the move might work to “drive Uber out of Montgomery County and detract from our aspirations to support innovation and innovative companies.”
Holmes testified Tuesday on behalf of Leggett, saying the county doesn’t support the three bills individually, but believes the Council should take a broader view of existing taxicab regulations.
“We believe they should be evaluated holistically to improve for-hire transportation systems in Montgomery County,” Holmes said. “We’re ready to work to change Chapter 53.”
Lee Barnes, president and CEO of Barwood Taxi and perhaps the most outspoken critic of Berliner’s efforts, said he supports the taxi regulation bill and a third bill introduced by Councilmember Hans Riemer that would create a centralized electronic dispatch system for cab drivers.
But Barnes again protested the Uber and Lyft-focused bill, saying it doesn’t do enough to provide fair competition.
“At the outset, we should dispense with the myth that Transportation Network Companies such as Uber and Lyft are ride-sharing,” Barnes said. “Their operators are not providing ride-sharing. They are not a car pool service or other ad hoc group linking travelers with common destinations. These services are nothing more, or less, than for-hire transportation.”
Ginanne Italiano, president and CEO of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, backed up Barnes — a past chair of the Chamber — by pointing to the existing county taxicab regulations.
“There are taxicab companies that have been doing business in Montgomery County for decades in compliance with some of the most antiquated regulations around,” Italiano said. “We believe that it is extremely important that these companies, no matter their business style or the logistics of their operations, be encouraged and enabled to compete under the same regulations.”
The Council’s Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a worksession on the bills on Jan. 26.

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