Uber's departure is Anchorage's loss - and cab cartel's gain

The free ride is over.

More accurately, your free rides are over. Uber has pulled out of Anchorage. Four months of waiting has indicated to Uber executives that the Municipality of Anchorage is not serious about working out an agreement allowing them to operate.

Uber is a ridesharing service that uses a mobile app to schedule rides and allows both the driver and passenger to see a photo and ratings of the other person before deciding to accept a ride or a fare from that person. The payment is all handled through the app, so there is no need to handle cash and drivers use their own vehicles, which have to meet Uber's standards.

Many people have questioned if Mayor Dan Sullivan ever had any interest in allowing Uber to operate. He was vocal about being against Uber from the very beginning, repeating the phrase, "We have to follow the law."

However, the law did not require the state to file a lawsuit against Uber, which it did, and which led to Uber's free rides. To comply with the court order, Uber offered free rides throughout Anchorage for the last six months. They stopped because they are now convinced that the current administration was negotiating in bad faith.

Assemblywoman and candidate for Mayor Amy Demboski told me via text message, "I absolutely believe the current administration is dragging their feet intentionally, and I don't think it's coincidental that Coffey is supported by the taxi industry. This goes hand in hand with the development department reorganization introduced-- seems someone is doing the dirty work for another."

Mayoral candidate Andrew Halcro said in a Facebook post, "It was frustrating to hear that Uber ceased service in Anchorage today because the city wasn't serious about negotiating after four months." Halcro's Facebook post also referenced an Alaska Dispatch News column that he wrote in support of Uber. In my Oct. 12 ADN column, I said that Halcro summed it up perfectly by saying, "Why isn't Mayor Sullivan leading the charge if Anchorage is really open for business?"

Neither Ethan Berkowitz nor Dan Coffey responded to my request for a comment, nor did they release any statements or make comments on Facebook about Uber pulling out of Anchorage.

Uber executives feel the same way as Demboski and Halcro.

On its website Uber's Senior Operations Manager Bryce Bennett said, "Unfortunately, although we have tried for months to work with the city of Anchorage to craft an inclusive agreement that paves a path forward for ridesharing services in Anchorage, the city has dragged its feet and failed to provide a clear end-date for negotiations. Because of the city's inaction, we are forced to make the difficult decision to pause operations in Anchorage at this time."

Along with its statement, Uber started a petition supporting their ridesharing business returning to Anchorage. Uber spokesperson Michael Amodeo tells me the petition has received more than 2,000 signatures since last Friday.

Clearly there are many people in Anchorage that want Uber. It is a great solution for the transportation gap that exists in Anchorage and it's the kind of technological option that millennials love.

This is a testament to the strength of the cab cartel here in Anchorage – particularly with the current mayoral administration. Had Sullivan had any interest in allowing this new business to enter the Anchorage market and signal to other innovative new businesses that Anchorage is open for business, we would be hearing about Uber's success in its new market instead of its reasons for pulling out.

The cab cartel has a lot to lose in this deal. With the municipality continuing to restrict permits, the value of those permits has risen to astronomical rates. Sullivan even went as far as to say on "The Dave Stieren Show" on KFQD last October that if Uber was allowed to operate that the city could be liable for the value lost in these permits. I've read the Municipal Charter front to back multiple times, and I can't imagine why he would think that the municipality is responsible for the value of taxicab permits.

The issue is larger than Uber. While it would be great to have a new option for clean and reliable transportation around Anchorage, it also sends a message to other businesses -- that Anchorage is closed for business as long as this administration is in power.

Anchorage needs a change -- in many different areas. This is a very important one. Anchorage is booming with newer businesses. Tikahtnu Commons, Glenn Square and areas in South Anchorage are seeing new businesses pop up seemingly every day. Anchorage needs new leadership in the April election that will welcome innovative new businesses rather than drive them away.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan who was born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president, and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com