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Manchester aldermen's vote for compliance with city taxi laws may be dead end for Uber

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 21. 2015 11:36PM

MANCHESTER — Uber appears to have reached the end of the road in Manchester.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted on Tuesday to require the “ride-sharing” company to comply with the city’s vehicle-for-hire — taxi — regulations or cease operating in the city, a strong rebuke for a company that has butted heads with regulators around the world.

The vote was 10-3 in favor of the motion. The aldermen rejected a proposal from Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig to allow Uber to continue operating in the city for at least another two months under a temporary agreement. The city council in Portsmouth voted to support such an agreement on Monday.

Uber, which enables people to use a smartphone app to hail rides from drivers contracted by the company, has been operating in Manchester since October. For the past couple of months, company and city officials have been attempting to craft a special ordinance for “Transportation Network Companies” for Uber and similar companies. But those efforts reached an impasse, primarily due to Uber’s insistence that it be able to maintain its own internal system for vetting drivers without having them be individually licensed by the city, a process that would entail running state background checks on them.

The debate on Tuesday crossed party lines, with the two Republicans on the board backing greater regulation of Uber, including Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur.

“I’m probably as big a private-sector guy as you can get. In this instance, I can only think of it as arrogance what happened in Portsmouth. I was really put off ... I think we should at least be able to request a background check.”

Meanwhile, Ward 6 Alderman Garth Corriveau said Uber was the way of the future.

“We need to change our rules,” he said. “By this city sticking its head in the sand — saying you either do what we’ve always done or don’t bother doing business here — what kind of signal does that send to global tech companies like Uber that come to us?”

The Administration Committee had voted 4-1 earlier in the day to back the tough stance toward Uber.

During the committee meeting, Ward 7 Alderman Bill Shea decried what he said was an unfair advantage enjoyed by Uber over taxi companies and drivers, whom he said were in danger of being put out of business.

“I agree Uber is a wonderful service if you have a smartphone, if you’re not handicapped, and if you can pay whatever they want,” Shea said. “Competition is always good — when everybody plays by the same rules.”

Extending a temporary operating agreement for Uber was backed by Craig, the committee chairman, as well as Michael Skelton, the president of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

“This is a positive amenity,” Skelton told the committee, referring to Uber’s presence in the city. “Our role is not to endorse Uber as a company ... But we think they should be allowed to operate. It’s a new model and it doesn’t fit neatly into the framework.”

Craig said a temporary agreement would at least allow the city to establish some ground rules for Uber, such as restricting its drivers from picking up passengers on the street or at the airport.

Michael Glass, an attorney for Uber, told the committee that driver background checks are “integrated into the Uber side of things.”

Having a separate city licensing process, he said, would “introduce friction” into Uber’s ability to hire drivers.

The three aldermen who voted against requiring Uber to submit to the taxi regulations are: Craig, Corriveau and Dan O’Neil.

Uber had signaled in communication with the city that it may leave Manchester if it’s forced to comply with the existing regulations. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday evening.

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