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Ashland council finds Uber issues taxing

After wading into the morass of Uber and Lyft vehicle-for-hire rides, the Ashland City Council found the issues so complex Tuesday it sent it back to the city Transportation Commission, which has yet to make a recommendation.

Assistant City Attorney Katrina Brown said ride-hailing would go well astray of restrictions of present city laws requiring background checks, vehicle inspections, driver permits and access for wheelchairs and service dogs.

Uber is urging the city to adopt a code like Medford’s, which requires only a seven-year “look back” at criminal records, she said. Brown intends to talk to Medford and other towns to see whether all could adopt the same regional policy on transportation network companies (TNCs).

Uber has assumed a take-it-or-leave-it stance, leading City Attorney Dave Lohman to tell councilors, “We need to update our taxi ordinance to protect our residents and local businesses” while not dashing desires of residents and tourists for “the transportation they need … it’s not easy.”

Because Ashland and Medford are close together and Ashland is much smaller, said Brown, Uber maintains they are “the same” and should have a uniform code — one like Medford’s.

Taxi driver Mark Thomas testified that TNCs are “absolutely brilliant for New York City, but this isn’t New York City. I drive for Crater Lake and yesterday had only seven calls between 5 and 5. There’s no demand here. If you flood the market with TNCs, well, what research have you done that says we need more vehicles on the road? You may drive the taxis out.”

In addition, Thomas said in an interview, “once they come in and there’s more vehicles on the road and taxi drivers dwindle, they control the market and will set prices based on the number of calls and number of vehicles. In a taxi, you know the fees, but with TNCs, you don’t know what you’re getting.”

Crater Lake Cab owner Joseph Forika said that while TNCs interface with smartphone apps, his taxi drivers are more experienced, work 24/7 and don’t assess cancellation fees.

Cascade Shuttle driver Nancy Buffington, who has been driving cab since 1984, told councilors she paid $14,000 last year for insurance, while TNCs have no proof of insurance and “there’s no accountability or background check. Medford taxis come over here and operate and if you can’t regulate taxis, how are you going to regulate Uber? You will be leaving the city open, not protecting the city. It’s a big issue. With my drivers, the money stays in the valley, but with them, it goes to a big corporation.”

Evan Lasley, regional labor organizer for AFL-CIO, painted a dark picture of the strategy of TNCs, saying they operate illegally, manipulate legislatures, bully cities, leave workers behind and “need to be held accountable.”

By 10:30 p.m., frustrated Councilor Rich Rosenthal moved to get a “thumbs up or thumbs down” on the proposal from the Transportation Commission, returning the issue to the City Council for its June 5 meeting.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.