The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday passed local regulations that would allow ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in the city, but it mostly rejected amendments that would regulate drivers for such companies almost identically to taxi drivers.
While the action symbolized Anchorage's desire to appear "forward-thinking," in the words of one Assembly member, it's unlikely those companies will come to the city without a change in state law.
The Legislature may also bar local governments from passing their own regulations of ride-sharing companies.
Over nearly two hours of debate Tuesday night, the Assembly fractured over whether ride-sharing companies should be treated as an independent business or an extension of the taxi industry. Assemblyman Dick Traini suggested more than a dozen amendments that would have brought Uber or Lyft under the chapter of Anchorage law that regulates cabs.
In the end, the Assembly only supported small changes, mostly in the area of public safety. Those included more stringent background checks of drivers and more frequent vehicle inspections of their cars than what Assemblyman Bill Evans had originally proposed.
Ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft, known formally in the ordinance as transportation network companies, use mobile apps to connect passengers with drivers. The drivers use personal vehicles, and payment is conducted by credit card through the app, where drivers and riders can also rate each other.
Assembly members who supported the ordinance called it a statement that Anchorage is a tech-friendly city. But it also marks a "strong message" to state lawmakers that Anchorage welcomes ride-booking companies, Evans said.
He said it was now up to the state to decide that drivers for ride-booking companies could be treated as independent contractors as opposed to employees, a key element of the business models for Uber and Lyft.
The Assembly vote was 7-3, with "no" votes from Traini, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Pete Petersen. Assemblyman Patrick Flynn was absent.
The regulatory debate Tuesday night largely revolved around the nature of companies like Uber and Lyft.
Evans said the companies should be treated as independent businesses.
"The value in (ride-booking companies) and the reason they've become so popular worldwide is because they have a different method of providing the same service," Evans said.
Traini took the opposite view. He said ride-booking companies provide the same service as taxis — taking a person from point A to point B — and should fall under the same rules.
Traini asked lawyer and former Assemblyman Dan Coffey, who has represented clients in the Anchorage cab industry, to prepare 14 amendments to alter Evans' ordinance. The proposals ranged from a $500 annual license fee to alcohol and drug screenings for drivers, aligning with regulations already in place for taxi drivers.
Evans said he sees Uber and Lyft as independent companies that cater much more to drivers who occasionally use their personal vehicles for the companies to supplement income. Traini's measures would "destroy" the idea of ride-booking companies, Evans said.
"I think it just discourages the use of TNCs and makes it overly burdensome for people to get into this part-time endeavor," Evans said.
The Assembly supported amendments from Assemblymen John Weddleton and Eric Croft to require vehicle inspections every year, instead of the two years in Evans' proposal. They also added fingerprint background checks for drivers and got rid of a prohibition of ride-booking companies accepting cash.
Evans and others said the final version of the ordinance does not compromise public safety.
Anchorage's goal should be to craft a system that allows taxis to operate in a manner close to ride-booking companies, instead of the other way around, Evans said.
Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar pledged that he would spearhead an effort to do just that in the coming months.
"There is an overwhelming desire, especially among young people, in this city, to see (ride-booking companies) operate here," Dunbar said. "I want to increase the transportation options in Anchorage, I want to be a forward-looking city."
Assemblyman Bill Starr said he's constantly asked by tourists why Anchorage does not have Uber or Lyft.
Gray-Jackson, the chair of the Assembly, said she would like to see ride-booking companies in Anchorage eventually. But she voted against the measure, suggesting she thought it was premature.
"The ultimate decision is the state," she said.