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Uber gets inside access at City Hall while city deregulates taxi industry


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO  - Taxi drivers demonstrate outside City Hall as the Portland City Council considers pilot project to allow the entry of Uber and Lyft into the taxi market. It’s no secret that Uber is helping rewrite the rules as Portland deregulates its taxi industry to allow Uber, Lyft and similar companies to enter the market.

But a group of Lewis & Clark law students are finding out how hard it is to get the same access as Uber at City Hall.

Since January, the students have been diligently researching, on their own time, the thorniest issue cities face in deregulating the taxi business — how to serve passengers in wheelchairs. They got the chance Tuesday to share some of their findings, including whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to Uber and Lyft, with Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s aide. Aides to Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish promised to schedule meetings as well, says Michael Schultz, a local attorney advising the Lewis & Clark law students.

But their requests to meet with Commissioner Steve Novick, who is in charge of deregulating Portland’s taxi industry to accommodate Uber and Lyft, have gone unanswered, Schultz says. So it was disappointing for them to leave City Hall Tuesday and see, through a conference room window, Novick meeting with two Uber lobbyists.

“When an industry enjoys that kind of access it’s challenging to break through,” Schultz said. “It’s easy to understand how those representing the public interest who have a lower number of contacts may be outmaneuvered.”

Novick, when told Wednesday afternoon of the complaints by Lewis & Clark law students, said he did meet with them “several months ago.”

“I wasn’t told that they wanted to have another meeting,” Novick said. After doing some checking, it turned out his staff never forwarded their July 23 and Aug. 4 email requests to meet again, Novick said.

“I would be happy to meet with them,” he said.

"Everybody has easy access to us," said Brian Hockaday, Novick's point person handling taxi deregulation.

Hockaday said he's reached out to meet with the Lewis & Clark law students, even giving them his business card, but they were the ones who were unresponsive.

Leslie Hallan, a representative of the law students, disputed that, saying Hockaday tried to "crash" a meeting they'd set up with

Joe VanderVeer, the former chairman of the Portland Commission on Disability.

“In no way is Mr. Hockaday's prior attempt to crash a private meeting a legitimate substitute for students' later requests to meet with Commissioner Novick,” Hallan said in an email.

Uber, now valued at more than $50 billion, has contracted with some of the nation’s top lobbyists to force its way into heavily regulated taxi markets, including David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, and Mark Wiener, who is Portland’s top local-government lobbyist and has advised several city commissioners.

Uber lobbyists busy

Reports filed with the Office of the City Auditor show Uber lobbyists have spent more time and money at City Hall this year than any other entity — by far.

In the first quarter of 2015, Uber reported spending $12,616 to lobby City Hall, about one-third of the total spent by all lobbies. Broadway Cab and the Transportation Fairness Alliance, a coalition of taxi companies, had the second-highest expenditures, at $7,500.

But during the second quarter of the year, when the city launched a four-month pilot project to allow Uber and Lyft to operate here, the lobbying gap mushroomed. Uber reported spending $50,173, or 69 percent of the total lobbying expenditures by all entities at City Hall, while Broadway Cab and the taxi coalition spent $7,500.

Uber has spent seven times what Pembina Pipeline spent to lobby City Hall the first six months of the year, a period when the Canadian company’s $500 million propane export terminal was vetted by the Planning and Sustainability Commission and then rejected by Mayor Hales, who denied the company a hearing before City Council. (Lyft hasn’t filed lobby reports the past two quarters, so it’s unclear what it has spent or what its lobbyists have done at City Hall.)

Leaders of the Transportation Fairness Alliance have repeatedly complained they aren’t getting listened-to as the city plots taxi deregulation.

Uber doesn’t seem to be having any issue with that.

In the first quarter of the year, Uber lobbyists scored 19 personal meetings at City Hall, including one with Novick, two with his transportation director Leah Treat, three with his chief of staff Chris Warner, and 10 with Hockaday. Uber also reported two personal meetings with Hales and three with Josh Alpert, the mayor’s chief of staff. Uber also reported 24 phone conversations with City Hall staffers, 12 with Alpert and 12 with Hockaday.

During the first quarter, the taxi coalition had a respectable 11 personal meetings at City Hall. However, six of those were with Commissioner Fish, who has been critical of Uber. The taxi industry lobbyists did get one meeting each with Alpert and Novick and Hockaday.

Uber influence grows

During the second quarter, the imbalance grew.

Uber’s four lobbyists scored 34 personal meetings with City Hall staffers and elected leaders — one every two business days — compared to four for the taxi coalition.

Uber’s lobbyists got to meet 23 times with Hockaday, nine times with Alpert, twice with Novick, four times with Warner and twice with Mayor Hales. The taxi coalition met once with Hockaday and had no meetings with other members of Novick and Hales’ staff.

Uber lobbyists also reported 56 phone conversations with City Hall staff and elected leaders in the second quarter, including 33 with Hockaday, 10 with Alpert and two with Novick. The taxi coalition reported just one phone conversation with City Hall officials.

Schultz was shocked to hear that Uber was doing so much behind-the-scenes lobbying while a city task force charged with recommending new rules for deregulation meets in open sessions.

“What’s the purpose of a task force if the elected officials are conducting parallel negotiations?” Schultz said. “It renders a task force a straw house.”

It could be that Uber simply asks for more meetings and phone calls than the taxi coalition, Novick said.

Novick noted that he made some disparaging remarks about Uber at a public meeting. Indeed, he’s done so at multiple public meetings.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s been minimal public contact” with Uber, he said. “Mostly I see them when I go to public forums.”

But that’s not the case with his staff, especially Hockaday. People affiliated with the taxi industry have grumbled privately that he seems close to Uber.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to think Bryan’s more receptive to requests from Uber and Lyft than any of the regular taxi companies,” Novick said.

Searching for policy answers

The Lewis & Clark law students chose to focus on wheelchair-accessible taxis because their research showed no city around the country has yet figured out how to serve that constituency well and pay for the service, Schultz said. The students did get some traction with the task force with their earlier proposal to set minimum response times for serving wheelchair-accessible taxi passengers, and requiring each of the companies to meet those standards.

However, Schultz wonders how that would mesh with the task force’s newer idea of subsidizing wheelchair-accessible taxis via a surcharge on each ride with a taxi or Uber-like service. That might not provide the proper number of vehicles to serve that constituency, he said, reflecting concerns raised by the Lewis & Clark law students he is mentoring as a volunteer.

The law students have done legal research on Uber and Lyft claims that their vehicles don’t have to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act. Uber and Lyft have contracted out with third-party providers rather than provide many, if any, vehicles under their brand with wheelchair lifts.

Preliminary data show that people in wheelchairs aren’t using Uber and Lyft much, and they often have no accessible vehicles available. The Lewis & Clark students found some “defects” in the way the city is analyzing data on response times for wheelchair-accessible taxis during the pilot project, Schultz said, and that’s among the findings they hope to share with city officials.

He seemed pleased that Novick has now agreed to meet with the students.

Law students delve into wheelchair-accessible taxi issue

A group of Lewis & Clark law students initially researched ordinances other cities have adopted to deregulate taxi service and accommodate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

Once they delved in the issue, the law students decided to focus on wheelchair-accessible taxis. That’s because their research showed no city around the country has yet figured out how to serve that constituency well and pay for the service, said Michael Schultz, a Portland lawyer advising the students.

After meeting some initial resistance, the students got consideration of their Portland Equal Access Plan by the Private For Hire Innovation Task Force appointed by Commissioner Steve Novick, Schultz said. That plan called for the city to set a minimum response time for picking up wheelchair-bound taxi passengers, and gradually reduce it until it equalled the service for other passengers.

The law students later researched the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Uber's claim that its vehicles don’t have to comply. They also found “defects” in the way the city is analyzing response-time data for wheelchair-accessible taxis in the pilot project, Schultz said, and that’s among the findings they hope to share with city officials.

Leslie Hallan, a representative of the law students, disputed the contention by Bryan Hockaday, Novick’s point person for taxi deregulation, that he reached out to the law students.

Hockaday did try to join a June 23 meeting they scheduled with Joe VanderVeer, the former chairman of the Portland Commission on Disability, but they asked him not to stay, Hallan said.

“In no way is Mr. Hockaday's prior attempt to crash a private meeting a legitimate substitute for students' later requests to meet with Commissioner Novick,” Hallan said in an email.

VanderVeer sent a followup June 23 email to Hockaday apologizing that he was excluded, but encouraged him to have a future meeting with the students.

“They have a lot of good ideas,” VanderVeer wrote Hockaday.

Such a meeting never occurred.

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