By Johnny Kampis | Watchdog.org
CULLMAN, Ala. — Tuscaloosa residents who offer rides to others through the ridesharing service Uber soon could find themselves in handcuffs.
A Tuscaloosa city spokeswoman confirmed to Watchdog.org on Wednesday the city will follow through on an ultimatum issued last week — drivers could be put behind bars for violating Tuscaloosa’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance, a misdemeanor.
“The city has decided to step up and possibly arrest drivers,” spokeswoman Deidre Stalnaker said. “We could have done that from the start.”
The start she references is shortly after Uber began operations in the home of the University of Alabama on Aug. 28, when Tuscaloosa police officers began issuing warnings to Uber drivers that they could be violating the city’s vehicle-for-hire law.
Unlike hailing a cab from the street or calling a limo service and setting up an appointment, ridesharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar work strictly through the free smartphone apps they offer to customers.
The app allows potential passengers to find the location of nearby drivers, track the length of the trip in distance and time and calculate the cost of a ride. Since the app transfers the fee from the user’s credit card, no cash changes hands.
The drivers are independent contractors and set their own work hours. The companies get paid by getting a percentage of the fares.
But cab companies — and city regulators in Tuscaloosa — say these are all distinctions without a difference.
Stalnaker told Watchdog the city’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance has 11 points, and city officials were willing to waive seven of them. The four they won’t budge on: required vehicle inspections, background checks of drivers, the requirement of a business license and sufficient liability insurance.
“For safety, to meet state law, we can’t budge on them,” Stalnaker said.
The business license, she said, would cost less than $100 per driver and is “not a money-making aspect for us.”
Watchdog tried to contact Uber officials to speak about the Tuscaloosa flap, receiving a short emailed response from spokesman Taylor Bennett.
“Uber continues to be available in over 215 cities around the world, moving folks safely and reliably around town; at this time demand greatly exceeds supply in Tuscaloosa,” he wrote.
Billy Guernier, Uber’s general manager, told AL.com on Monday the city had indicated an unwillingness to negotiate with the San Francisco-based company. Tuscaloosa officials said the opposite.
“I don’t think any person who is rational will think that (arresting drivers) is the right choice,” Guernier said. “But if they do, we’re going to have to figure out what to do next. There’s a possibility that Uber will no longer be available in Tuscaloosa.”
It’s been a slog for the fast-growing ridesharing service as it branches into Alabama. Uber also started operations in cross-state college town Auburn in August, and while there’s been no threat of arrests there, City Manager Charlie Duggan said the city will require Uber drivers to pay city taxes and obtain licenses to operate.
“This appears to be a taxi service, so we’re going to treat it like one and be fair so everyone meets the regulations,” Duggan said at the September Auburn City Council meeting..
After Tuscaloosa officers began issuing warnings, they followed up with citations during undercover operations.
Uber driver Brandon Oliver, 21, was caught last month with marijuana and an open bottle of vodka in his car. He was also charged with driving on a suspended license, not having a tag light, operating a vehicle for hire without a business license, not having a chauffeur permit and operating a vehicle for hire without proper insurance — if you’re keeping score at home.
Matthew Mitchell, an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said he’s only heard of such sting operations in Miami, but added that Uber has faced regulatory hurdles in just about every market.
Mitchell said the Tuscaloosa police’s undercover operations posing as patrons — rather than responding to complaints from riders — to stymie Uber drivers seems like overreach.
“In my view that’s an indication that this is a victimless crime and no one is harmed by this,” said Mitchell, who said he frequently uses the Uber service around his office in Arlington, Va.
The company issued an email plea to registered Uber users last week after Tuscaloosa officers stepped up enforcement.
“Tuscaloosa is at risk of losing safe, affordable rides, and we need your help to stop that from happening,” said the email from Team Uber Alabama. “Instead of welcoming an innovation that is providing more options and opportunities for its citizens while ensuring public safety, the city is stifling it.
“Stand up for what you deserve and tell Mayor (Walter) Maddox the city needs to stop wasting money and resources blocking new technologies and start working together to move Tuscaloosa forward.”
Maddox told the Tuscaloosa News he got more than 250 emails from Uber supporters, but he and the city refuse to budge on their stance. The mayor released a video Wednesday morning emphasizing that point. Stalnaker said Maddox was traveling Wednesday and Watchdog was unable to reach him for comment.
Rob Nikolewski contributed to this report.