Uber begins Anchorage ride sharing despite uncertainty about legal status

Uber -- the company that lets people order, monitor and pay for a ride via its smartphone app -- began operating in Anchorage on Wednesday night when members of the indie-rock band Portugal. The Man got aboard a red SUV to take a ride.

Anchorage is Uber's 206th city worldwide. Eager users have rejoiced at the ride-sharing service's appearance in Alaska. And until at least Sept. 27, all rides on Uber in Anchorage are free up to $25.

"We launch our services in new cities with the free promotion to help introduce the application to riders and potential driver partners," Eva Behrend, Uber's Western Region spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

But Anchorage cab companies and sedan services aren't happy to be sharing the roads with drivers who do not currently face the same regulations and enforcement as everyone else in Anchorage who offers transportation in exchange for money.

Uber does not employ its drivers. The company simply provides them with a new iPhone loaded with the Uber driver app and manages the financial transactions, giving drivers, who use their own cars, 80 percent of the fares. Uber gets the remaining 20 percent, calling it a "technology fee." Uber does do background checks and vehicle inspections on all of the drivers allowed to use its app. But Uber said it is not a taxi company and therefore should not be subject to the myriad regulations imposed on cabs, car services, shuttle vans and courtesy cars.

But Anchorage just underwent a rigorous and often contentious rewrite of Title 11, the city code governing transportation-for-hire. Completed in December 2013, new rules require regular vehicle inspections, set allowable rates and require all taxis to carry in-vehicle cameras. Fees imposed on local transportation companies fund the municipality's Transportation Inspection Department. How Uber fits in (or doesn't) with the new taxi ordinances is still being debated.

"No decisions have been made by the municipality at this point regarding Uber's service in Anchorage," Mayor Dan Sullivan's spokesman, Bryce Hyslip, wrote in an email to Alaska Dispatch News on Thursday. "Legal is currently collecting information and reviewing the Uber business model. They will be meeting in the near future to discuss the requirements in place and what changes may need to be made."

Hyslip said the meeting could take place as early as Friday or on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Anchorage Taxi Permit Owners Association has asked the municipality to send Uber a cease-and-desist letter and follow that up with a request for an injunction against the company's Anchorage operations. ATPOA attorney Jim Brennan said Uber is trying to sneak into the Anchorage market.

"The fact that this is a multibillion-dollar company from California should not give it the right to break our laws," Brennan said. "They are not just skirting the law; they are seeking to avoid it altogether."

Anchorage municipal transportation inspector Eric Musser said the way city code reads today, it appears Uber would have to be regulated under Title 11 as a taxi service or car service -- requiring a permit, vehicle inspections and municipal-run background checks on all drivers, as well as having video cameras installed in all vehicles.

Musser has two transportation code enforcement officers working in his office and has said trying to regulate Uber -- with its unmarked cars -- would be "a nightmare."

Uber said it is working with city officials and Anchorage Assembly members to showcase its operation. And it has already won the same fight in other cities that balked at allowing the service without subjecting drivers to taxi regulations.

"Everyone we have met with has been very interested in the way in which Uber has brought more choices for consumers and greater economic opportunity for local entrepreneurs to start their own small business or supplement their personal income," Behrend wrote. "We plan to continue dialogue just as we have done in cities across the United States who already enjoy the benefits of Uber."

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.

Sean Doogan

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