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Uber driver Brian Savage drives to the Medford airport in February. Savage, who has a business license to drive for both Uber and Lyft, says his work provides income and a flexible schedule. Mail Tribune file photo

Ashland mayor uses rare veto to block Uber/Lyft

It looked like ride-sharing businesses Uber and Lyft were about to join Ashland roads, but Mayor John Stromberg has put up a stop sign.

On Sunday, Stromberg vetoed the ordinance after the City Council had passed it Feb. 5 with a 4-2 vote.

The vote would have allowed transportation network companies to operate in Ashland. After failed negotiations between the city and Uber and Lyft, city councilors finally agreed to draft the ordinance to better reflect the wishes of the TNC companies.

Stromberg called it a “friendly veto” and expressed concerns of the impact these companies could have on the economy, climate change and other local businesses.

The mayor said he knows this could be a vital tool to a large portion of Ashland citizens, specifically the older population who may no longer have driver’s licenses, but he does not want the decision to come at the expense of others. He said he doesn’t think the council had the proper time to devote to exploring possible outcomes and consequences.

Stromberg said his concern for large corporations paving their way into the city and negatively impacting local taxi companies and public transportation.

“If local taxi service is lost and the TNCs are not able to make a profit in small cities, will Ashland be left with only very expensive vehicle-for-hire service or possibly no such service at all?” Stromberg asked in the veto document.

He mentioned the Rogue Valley Transportation District recently submitted an application for a grant to purchase two high-quality, ADA-assessable vans to service Ashland on an on-call demand service as part of a pilot study.

He asked if staff and the council thought about the implications of having TNCs operate during the pilot study.

In an interview, Stromberg said he found that Uber has steadily lost profits every year since its inception in 2009 but has survived by raising large amounts of venture capital.

He said Uber, a privately owned business, has announced that the company may go public in 2019 and that profitability is a primary determinant of stock price.

Stromberg also asked if allowing these vehicles to service Ashland will cause more pollution, something against the current Climate and Energy Action Plan of Ashland. He said for Uber or Lyft to work, there has to be multiple drivers interested in working at various times throughout the day, and so he questioned how much greenhouse gases will be emitted from these vehicles.

City Councilor Julie Akins said she thinks ride-sharing services will decrease the amount of carbon emissions because some people choose to ride share with others.

She said she disagrees with the mayor’s veto.

“While I appreciate his concerns, I do not believe them to be overriding reasons to vacate a measure passed by the majority of elected officials,” Akins said in an email. “It means the council will have to deliberate again on this measure. It will slow or potentially kill the ordinance which would have allowed Uber and Lyft to operate in Ashland.”

Stromberg also stated concerns that the city may not have explored all its options before settling to the TNCs’ terms, such as working with other larger cities to gain more leverage in negotiations.

Originally, the city tried to negotiate for stricter background checks and vehicle inspections, as well as require that some vehicles for hire have the ability to transport wheelchairs.

Considering that nearly 31 percent of Ashland residents are 60 years old or older, according to the city senior services division, that might not be such a bad idea.

Uber and Lyft refused to work with Ashland under these regulations, so they were removed from the ordinance before it passed Tuesday.

Councilor Akins said many vehicles can transport folding wheelchairs, and that perhaps this could be a unique service offered by taxi services which would help keep them around.

She said that ultimately not having these services could negatively affect tourism in town because there is an expectation to have Uber and Lyft.

Stromberg also mentioned in the veto his concern for future legislative acts regarding TNCs in Oregon.

“Uber and Lyft are lobbying in Salem to get the Legislature to preempt local governments’ ability to regulate TNCs and force their business model on every city in the state,” Stromberg wrote. “Ashland’s unilateral acquiescence to the TNCs’ preferences at this stage of the legislative session could signal to our legislators a willingness to cede local control not only to the TNCs, but also to the state.”

He stated that he is not trying to ban the companies, but feels that this ordinance must be constructed correctly because once it is in place, it will prove “very hard politically to change.”

He concludes his veto letter by stating if the ordinance receives fewer than four votes the next time, he will propose a joint study session with the transportation commission and seek council approval to instruct staff to pursue collaboration with other Oregon cities on TNC-related issues and bring back the ordinance with revised provisions. He said he would also like to host a public forum to open the conversation back up to the community.

“If the re-vote following this veto again receives enough votes for passage, it will at least be clear to Ashland citizens that the council took the trouble to deliberate the hard questions posed above,” Stromberg said in the veto document.

The council will re-vote at its next meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

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