TV media turns out in force for one of the most tediously complicated policy arguments ever.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • TV media turns out in force for the most tediously complicated policy debate ever.

"I'm not sure I understood what you said," council member Sally Bagshaw said at one point during this morning's meeting of the Seattle City Council's Committee on Taxi, For-Hire, and Limousine Regulations. It was a declaration that pretty much sums up the generally muddled state of public understanding of this tediously complicated issue.

After more than a year of contentious public hearings, committee members Sally Clark, Bruce Harrell, and Mike O'Brien had finally presented a draft ordinance to their colleagues that made absolutely nobody happy. And faced with a barrage of PR and lobbying from "ride share" companies Lyft, Sidecar, and UberX (now rebranded "Transportation Network Companies" or "TNCs"), the council as a whole—as well as Mayor Ed Murray—have apparently balked at the notion of capping the number of ride-share drivers.

Not sure why anybody expected this process to go smoothly?

Listen to the aggrieved taxi drivers fighting to protect their livelihoods from unlicensed and illegal competition—or the aggrieved TNC drivers scoffing at the antiquated regulatory system that threatens their new, customer-friendly industry—and you'd think the solution was easy. But it isn't. This is an extremely complicated industry composed of multiple service categories subject to overlapping regulations from various jurisdictions. There are no easy solutions.

At today's meeting a number of amendments were made to the original ordinance, while others—like the controversial cap on the number of TNC drivers—were deferred for later discussion. A finally vote on a revamped ordinance is now scheduled to take place at a February 27 council meeting, and the ordinance will no doubt change a bit between now and then. So nothing is official.

From the look of it, the final ordinance will likely expand licensed Seattle taxis by about 150 over two years, while newly permitting the existing fleet of two-tone flat-rate for-hire vehicles to pick up hailing street passengers, except at city-licensed taxi stands. State-licensed limos and town cars (on which there is no cap) would still be limited to pre-arranged rides, and barred from picking up street hails. All of the drivers above would be free to drive their licensed and inspected cars for the TNCs.

Still to be settled, a proposal to allow licensed for-hire drivers (the same folks who drive taxis, flat-rates, and limos) to also drive their personal cars for TNCs, assuming they pass regular vehicle inspections (the number of licensed for-hire drivers vastly exceeds the number of licensed taxi and flat-rate vehicles, thus providing a large supply of potential drivers to the TNCs). That would be on top of the separate class of licensed TNC drivers, capped or uncapped.

Part of the problem in considering the cap issue is the refusal of Lyft, Sidecar, and UberX to provide the council with reliable numbers. In defending a proposed cap of 300 TNC drivers, O'Brien responded to charges that the number was arbitrary by complaining that "I don’t know how we make it anything but arbitary when there is a lack of information." Sally Bagshaw opposes a cap, but even she complained about the lack of cooperation from the TNCs: “I feel like we have to scold you to get the data we’ve gotten," she told the companies.

But even with the data, this won't be an easy decision.