Alaska News

Anchorage trying to put the brakes on Uber ride-sharing service

Uber, the nation's largest commercial ride-sharing service, is continuing to send business to its Anchorage drivers despite two cease-and-desist letters from the Municipality of Anchorage.

So far, one Uber driver has been issued a fine, a citation for which Uber said it would shoulder the bill. This comes as Anchorage municipal attorney Dennis Wheeler says the municipality is now considering whether it should go to court to get a temporary injunction against Uber's Anchorage operations, and at least one Anchorage Assembly member is working to make the ride-sharing service legal in Alaska's largest city -- at least temporarily.

The company's Anchorage strategy seems to mirror its approaches in U.S. cities like Austin, Texas; Memphis, Tenn; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and cities throughout Virginia. There, as in Anchorage, Uber has been ruled to be operating as an illegal cab company, in violation of local or state laws. In each case, Uber and its main rival, Lyft, continued to operate after receiving the cease-and-desist letters, while at the same time working with city councils and state governments to change the rules to allow the ride-sharing services at least temporary permission to operate.

Virginia just passed a law allowing Uber and Lyft to work in that state. Similar laws are being considered in almost every other jurisdiction that has tried to stop Uber or Lyft from continuing to offer their app-based ride-sharing services, including in Anchorage. But that doesn't mean municipal officials are happy with Uber's disregard for their interpretation of local transportation ordinances.

"It seems to be sort of their standard operating procedure to go into jurisdictions, operate without compliance of local code and not necessarily following cease-and-desist letters," Wheeler said. "From my perspective it's not a good way to start a relationship."

Transportation-for-hire is extremely regulated in Anchorage, requiring costly permits, background checks, insurance and vehicle inspections. Uber said it does its own background checks and has all vehicles inspected at the beginning of a driver's service with the company. Uber carries insurance for drivers while they are on the way to pick up or drop off a rider.

But the company is not currently playing by the same rules as other Anchorage cab and car service companies.

Wheeler confirmed that one $100 citation has already been issued to a local Uber driver after he was summoned for a ride by a local transportation inspector. Uber said it would pay the fine.

"We fully stand by our driver partners and will cover the cost of any unjust citation," Eva Behrend, Uber's Anchorage spokeswoman, wrote in an emailed response to questions from Alaska Dispatch News.

"This action is simply an attempt to protect special interests and does nothing but restrict consumer choice and limit economic opportunity for the people of Anchorage," Behrend wrote. "We've already received overwhelming demand and support from the many residents and visitors eager for access to a safe, affordable and reliable transportation alternative. Uber has reached out to the municipality and we look forward to continuing to work with city officials to create a permanent home for ride sharing in Anchorage."

Wheeler said that, to his knowledge, Uber has not responded to either of the cease-and-desist letters sent to the company last week. But Uber has reached out to Anchorage Assemblyman Dick Traini, who led a grueling months-long rewrite of the local taxi ordinances known as Title 11. That rewrite added requirements to the way taxi companies operate, including mandating video cameras in all cabs. Other parts of the rules govern taxi licenses and permits, which Uber claims its drivers don't need because the company is a technology provider, not a taxi service.

Customers download Uber's smartphone app and use it to request a ride. Drivers own and operate their own cars and are paid through the Uber app. Uber then keeps 20 percent of all fares as a "technology fee."

Traini said he has met with Uber officials to see what their service offers, and he believes the company should be allowed to operate in Anchorage, citing lack of taxi service to communities like Eagle River and Girdwood and high demand for taxis during bar closing hours, as well as Uber's popularity among consumers.

Claiming municipal officials have been unwilling to work with the company, Traini said he has proposed a new ordinance, AO 2014-127, that would allow Uber and other ride-sharing services to operate in Anchorage under a "memorandum of understanding for a pilot program."

"This is the only way I can see that this will work, because this administration will not work with Uber," Traini said.

Traini's ordinance will be heard and made available for public comment at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Oct. 21.

Meanwhile, the municipality is considering whether to go to court to stop Uber. Transportation inspectors say they will continue to issue tickets to anyone caught driving for the company. And while Uber has said it will pay any of its drivers' citations, that policy could get expensive.

"The first citation is $100 for each person," Anchorage transportation inspector Eric Musser said. "After that it goes to $300, then $750, then $1,000."

Sean Doogan

Sean Doogan is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.