2017-01-12 / News

Council divided on removing taxi regulation

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Council members were split on whether to consider removing or changing the city’s ordinance requiring taxi cab companies to submit vehicles to an extra yearly inspection by codes enforcement.

City staff presented the council with the idea at a Jan. 3 workshop, and the council was divided, but leaned in favor of eliminating the ordinance.

As the Courier reported in its Nov. 17 issue, the volume of taxi service in Biddeford is dwindling since the departure of A-1 taxi in September and the planned departure of Twin City taxi at the end of the year. Twin City owner Rick Long told the Courier then that the reason the company would stop serving Biddeford was because of the regulation, which he said was burdonsome. At that time, the city was expected to have only one cab operating out of Biddeford, owned by Able Taxi.

Codes Enforcement inspects cabs in the city before allowing them to operate, with the assistance of Lt. Ricky Doyon, of the Police Department, who is trained to perform inspections. Doyon told the Courier in November that he checks the tires, brakes, exhaust system, and the general appearance of the vehicle for obvious problems.

“I’ve noted that both Saco and Old Orchard are not inspecting,” City Manager Jim Bennett told the council at the workshop.

“I’m 1,000 percent opposed to getting rid of it,” said Ward 7 Councilor Michael Ready. “I think it’s as unobtrusive as something can be. It doesn’t take a long time. It’s not something that they use to batter the taxi companies. If you look at the sheets that the police chief sent, we’ve got vehicles that are deemed taxis that are 1990. Uber and Lyft, maybe we can’t control them but that doesn’t mean that we should just allow a free-for-all out there.”

Uber and Lyft are both “transportation network companies” that use smartphone apps to coordinate independent drivers to transport patrons, in a similar way as taxi companies. The distinction is that the vehicles are not owned and the drivers are not employed by the company in the same way. Former A-1 Taxi owner John Surran believes that in 2015 the state was paid to pass a law that protected such companies from regulation by municipalities like Biddeford, although he could uncover no facts to confirm that belief.

“You call Augusta, and nobody knows nothing,” Surran told the Courier. “When Uber came in to the state, they cut a deal with someone. The state of Maine gave Uber carte blanche to do business anywhere in the state of Maine, without having to go by city ordinances and stuff.”

“Uber has been looking, or, more broadly speaking, transportation network companies, have been looking for consistent regulation nation-wide so they can operate their businesses in a predictable way,” said state Rep. Martin Grohman (D-Biddeford). “I think they have a template bill that they run in a bunch of different states.”

That statutory provision, in Section 1677 of Maine’s Title 29-A, reads that “a municipality or other political subdivision may not adopt an ordinance, regulation or procedure governing the operations of a transportation network company.”

According to Grohman, the law passed largely because it allowed the state to require Uber and others to carry insurance.

“The impetus for the bill was a tragic situation in California, where a young girl was hit by an Uber driver, and there was this question of liability,” he said. “I think that the kind-of compromise in the bill was, ‘Look, you can operate here with this statewide pre-emption, but you need to carry this kind of liability insurance.’ I think the insurance requirements are fairly insignificant, but, that was positioned as the give-and-take.”

Grohman said he voted against the law.

“It really makes sense to have the same rules apply to everybody,” he said.

Grohman said municipal regulation of taxis is more strict than how other transportation network companies are regulated, as a result of the law.

“There are specific requirements on taxi trips to the Portland Jetport,” he said as an example. “I remember after the legislation passed, that immediately came up as an issue. There’s some concern about fairness there.”

Surran said it was unfair that companies such as Uber didn’t have to follow regulations, like Biddeford’s inspection requirements, while taxi companies did. However, Surran added that, while he was in business, that disparity didn’t have much of an effect.

“Uber, they may have had a little effect on me,” Surran said. “They’re not having a dramatic effect on Twin City, or Alternative, or Hi5 (Taxi, another southern Maine cab service).

“The reason is, 75 percent of my business was low income. In order to do business with Uber, you’ve gotta have a credit card, and the credit card has to go on file. You know, these people in Biddeford don’t have credit cards. This was a cash business.”

Surran said he would oppose removal of Biddeford’s regulation.

“That would be insane,” he said.

Surran said when he was operation, many cabs of his competitors were in disrepair.

“If you’re a hire vehicle, and people are paying you to ride in your car, your vehicle should be as safe as it possibly can be,” he said.

“I think this is a very fair ordinance,” said Ward 5 Councilor Bob Mills at the workshop. “Throughout the course of a year a taxicab puts a lot of miles on it.”

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t, in our spirit of doing things together with other communities, that we can’t get Old Orchard Beach and Saco to come together with us and embrace one combined ordinance like this,” Mills added. “But I will still support keeping this ordinance in place.”

Ward 4 Councilor Robert Quattrone also expressed support for continuing the ordinance.

At-large Councilor Laura Seaver, Ward 1 Councilor Michael Swanton and Ward 3 Councilor Stephen St. Cyr supported removing the ordinance. Seaver said she thinks the ordinance is redundant with state inspection requirements, which also require vehicles to be in good repair.

“I’m always concerned about whatever liability that we carry,” Seaver said. “If the city has inspected them and deemed them safe and something goes wrong, what kind of liability lies on us?”

Surran believed that liability could cut in exactly the opposite direction.

“I personally think that, if one of those cabs gets in an accident due to a tie rod end letting go, or a wheel bearing letting go, or a tire falls off and they crash into another vehicle, and someone gets killed, I absolutely believe that a smart attorney is going to go for the deepest pockets, and they’re gonna come flying back on the Biddeford and say ‘you had a stringent ordinance here, and now you did away with those requirements,’ the city is gonna be held liable,” he said.

City staff will formally present the council with a proposed ordinance action in coming weeks, Bennett said.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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