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Houston City Council to debate ordinance allowing Uber and Lyft

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On Monday, July 28, the Agenda Briefing session of Houston City Council foreshadowed one of the most daunting weeks of recent memory. Councilors must read about 450 pages of agenda backup documents (compared to an average of 120 pages per week), including the original proposed ordinance, a substitute ordinance, and several written amendments. Further the Transportation, Technology, and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by Council Member Larry Green, held a hearing starting at 10:00 AM on the new bill that lasted until 2:00 PM. At the same time, Mayor Parker's administration circulated an additional memorandum clarifying questions and addressing matters still be debated.

The proposed ordinance creates a new category of vehicle for hire businesses that rely on smart phone applications to connect people seeking a ride to drivers willing to accept passengers called “Transportation Network Companies” or TNCs. The most prominent of these are “Uber” and Lyft, both of which are already operating in Houston, despite the fact that they do not meet the requirements of the existing ordinance, and hence, are illegal. Under the new ordinance, TNCs will need to register for a permit, impose insurance and inspection requirements on their drivers, and address the problem of an “insurance gap.” Most drivers have private insurance which does not cover the use of their vehicles “for hire.” Once registered, Uber and Lyft will need to start providing the City with data on the number of drivers, locations of trips, and gps tracking. Similar tracking information will also be imposed on traditional taxicabs, limousines, and other vehicles for hire. The goal is to generate a database that will help future policy makers determine issues of supply and demand for vehicles for hire. According to an administration official, at the present time, there is no data available on supply and demand for locations other than the airport.

The first version of the ordinance came before the Council on June 11. After considerable debate, it was delayed to July 30, with the hope that Council Member Larry Green, who has substantial experience as a mediator, would work out amendments that could satisfy the major stakeholders (generally, the largest taxicab companies and the Internet based services). The original ordinance cannot be tagged on July 30, but amendments and a substitute ordinance will be “taggable.” Given the lively debate and the complexity of the issues still being discussed as of Monday, it seems likely that the council will need more time, vote down the original ordinance, and tag the substitute.

A second challenge for this week is a review of a decision by the Houston Archeological and Historical Commission to deny permission to homeowner David Alvarez to move his from 1815 Cortlandt Street to his lot at 1026 Lathrop Street. The house has qualified as an historical structure, and is considered a contributing structure to the character of its neighborhood. The problem is that the house was moved from its original location to its current location in the 1970's. When a homeowner has exhausted the process of administrative review by the Historical Commission, the last recourse is to request that City Council act as a sort of court of appeals, and review the decision “on the record.” The Councilors must read the 125 page administrative record and vote to uphold or reverse the Historical Commission. (Item 24).

The agenda also includes a public hearing on a Resolution of No Objection for the 4% tax credit for New Hope Housing for a project at 2620 Reed Road, and the monthly financial report from the Comptroller and Finance Director. The remaining 20 items on the agenda are relatively routine and council staff asked only questions of details. Most will probably be passed on a voice vote on Wednesday without debate.

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