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Uber irks local cabbies

Taxi companies have mobilized against a proposal to allow ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to do business in Medford.

"They're always doing things on the edge of legality," said James Cox, owner of Southern Oregon All Star Taxi Inc.

Cox and other taxi companies, who met Monday, cite scandals that have rocked Uber recently, including sexual harassment claims, inadequate background checks, the CEO stepping down and allegations the company skirted regulations in Portland.

At noon Thursday, Medford City Council will hold a study session to discuss a recommendation from the city attorney to allow transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft in the city.

Kevin McConnell, deputy city attorney, offered a proposed ordinance that would do away with the city conducting time-consuming background checks on drivers and, instead, put the burden for the background checks on the companies.

An Uber representative told the city it wouldn't do business here if the city wanted to continue with its own background checks.

Also, city taxi licenses for drivers would no longer be required if the city didn't perform the background checks, according to McConnell's analysis, which will be presented Thursday to the council, which could vote on the issue later this summer.

Operators would be required to obtain a business license and regulatory license. Salem officials last week approved allowing ride-sharing companies to operate in the city. Bend has also allowed Uber and Lyft, though Uber pulled out of Eugene after it was fined for failing to follow city rules.

Both companies offer simple smartphone apps that enable people to hail a ride with just a few taps.

Cox, who said he didn't think Uber conducts adequate background checks, cited the case of a California Uber driver who was arrested last week on suspicion of sexual assault and kidnapping involving an intoxicated female passenger who passed out.

The Uber driver, Alaric Spence, 46, of North Hollywood, has five prior felony convictions for narcotics possession and narcotics possession for sale, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

Cox said that under the city's current regulations it would be almost impossible for a driver with a criminal background to get a license. He said it is typical for Uber to ask for less stringent rules than taxi companies.

"As long as they play on the same level playing field, that's fine," Cox said. "But they won't."

Cox said there are almost 40 cab companies in the valley, with more than 150 drivers. He said the local taxis provide other services, including rides for the elderly and disabled. They also work with hospitals, transporting blood and other supplies, as well as making runs to Klamath Falls, he said. 

Jon Isaacs, public affairs manager for Uber, said he couldn't comment on a news report about a particular driver's background issues without knowing more details.

In the three cities in Oregon in which it operates, Uber conducts thorough background checks that go back seven years, Isaacs said. The background checks are conducted by a third-party company, Checkr.

"Someone with five felony records in Oregon, in cities that we operate in, would be screened out," he said.

As to the other issues, Isaacs said his company wants the same rules that apply to other ride services.

"We want a level playing field for ride-share companies and taxi companies," he said.

Drivers, when they are transporting Uber customers, are covered by an Uber insurance policy, Isaacs said.

He said Uber is very interested in moving into the Medford market if the City Council can enact the right kind of ordinance.

Johnny Ingrassia, owner of the taxi service Pineapple Express, said he's trying to start an association of taxi companies to fight Uber and Lyft. Several cab company representatives met Monday to discuss their options.

"I'm trying to stir up the pot," he said. "I'm telling them, 'Let's mount a huge protest.' "

Ingrassia said he plans to write a letter to the city protesting Uber and Lyft.

He said so-called gypsy cabs with unlicensed drivers are already cannibalizing the taxi industry. Many of these drivers pull up to bars to pick up fares despite not having a license.

Ingrassia said he thinks local taxis have better insurance policies than the Uber or Lyft drivers.

According to websites for Uber and Lyft, drivers are required to show proof of insurance.

Under the proposed city regulations, drivers who are on their way to pick up a fare or have the fare in the vehicle would have to have commercial liability auto insurance with limits not less than $1 million for death, personal injury and property damage. Another $1 million would be required for under-insured or uninsured drivers of another vehicle that cover death, personal injury and property damage per incident.

A separate coverage would apply if the driver has not yet connected with a fare. That coverage would be $50,000 per person for death and injury, $100,000 per incident for death and injury and $25,000 for property damage, plus any required state coverage.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.