Members of the public testified for the first time Tuesday on three bills that would create statewide regulations for ride-hailing companies in Texas. The bills could also pave a way for Uber and Lyft to return to Austin.
Supporters say statewide regulations would ensure all companies can operate in all jurisdictions. State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), the author of Senate Bill 176, said putting ride-hailing regulations under the state would be a boon for public safety.
“The simple fact is that drunk drivers don’t stop at city limit signs,” he said. “And when someone drives drunk through my community on their way home from Austin they’re putting the lives of my children and my constituents’ children at risk.”
Two of the three bills, SB 176 and SB 361, heard by a Senate committee Tuesday would mandate background checks for all ride-hailing drivers. None of the bills calls for drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background checks, which is the law in Austin. Voters upheld these rules in May. Uber and Lyft shut down their operations in the city just days after the election results, maintaining that the regulations were too onerous.
“Voters being able to make their own decisions is the bedrock of liberty,” Council Member Ann Kitchen told lawmakers Tuesday. “Austin voters chose a system which fostered ride-hailing competition and innovation and which delivered the safety choices they wanted.”
Since Uber and Lyft left the city, at least a dozen ride-hailing companies have tried their hand at shuttling residents from place to place. Some have already bowed out. Currently, six ride-hailing companies are operating legally in Austin. But two of the front-runners, RideAustin and Fasten, crashed during peak events in the city: on New Year’s Eve and, more recently, during South by Southwest on Saturday.
State Sen. Kelly Hancock, who chairs the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, pushed Kitchen on the city’s stance that fingerprint-based background checks for drivers ensure public safety. He asked about the recommendation of Austin’s police chief at the time, Art Acevedo.
“It was centered on the fingerprinting,” Kitchen responded.
Acevedo also testified in December 2015, however, that losing ride-hailing options in the city was a bigger threat. Hancock and Kitchen sparred until he got that answer from her.
“Ms. Kitchen, I want to be very polite and respectful, but I already know the answer to my question. I just need you to answer it based on what you know it to be and what I know it to be and what anyone who reads the Austin American-Statesman knows it to be,” he said. “Would you tell me what your chief of police recommended regarding additional regulations.”
“TNCs are important,” Kitchen said, referring to transportation network companies. “And I think he recommended that the TNC service is important, that TNCs are useful in reducing DUIs, and we absolutely agree with that.”
Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who supports the state bills, cited one company that decided against relocating to Austin after hearing about the city’s ride-hailing regulations.
“Texas is a beacon for the free market economy, but it has become less desirable for economic development and innovation because of the ride-sharing debacle in Austin,” she said.
Senators left Senate Bills 176, 361 and 113 pending in committee. They could pass on to the full Senate for a vote any day now.