Will Texas Welcome Back Uber?

Local and state governments spar as Texas state lawmakers seek to tamp overreach

By Terri Hall l February 1, 2017


One thing is clear — Texas state lawmakers are none too happy that cities like Austin have interfered with Texas liberty, whether it’s rideshare companies, imposing plastic bag bans or mobile phone bans, and they plan to overrule local governments and put out the welcome mat for freedom. The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 2017 Policy Orientation For the Texas Legislature held last month hosted several panel discussions addressing the increasing anti-liberty overreach by liberal local governments.

For instance, not only has the city of Austin kicked out rideshare companies hampering their ability to operate and threatening the connectivity and efficiency of the entire state highway system, the city has neutered other innovative new markets like Airbnb as well as imposing a draconian mobile phone ban and plastic grocery bag ban. State lawmakers have said enough is enough. Cities like Austin have crossed the line in the sand — to take a page from the battle of the Alamo — and they’re signaling it’s high time to dial it back.

Ridesharing has solved the problem that has perennially plagued transit — how to get passengers from door to door, what April Mims of Lyft refers to as ‘the first and last mile.’ It was private rideshare companies, not the long arm of government, that innovated and created a new system of ridesharing allowing passengers to hail an affordable ride from a trusted driver who uses their own vehicle to transport folks to where they need to go at the click of a button on a smart phone. Such companies offer four key benefits: 1) transit from door-to-door; 2) safety (those who may have had too much to drink and would ordinarily get behind the wheel now have a new, safer option to get home); 3) flexible supplemental income for drivers; and, 4) build capacity across the transit system by linking drivers with passengers and taking more vehicles off the road.

Lyft has recently partnered with Brookdale Senior Living Centers to start a program called ‘Safe Rides for Seniors.’ Many seniors desire to age in place at home but can no longer drive safely. Government-operated paratransit options can be cumbersome, slow, and bureaucratic, often taking all day to get to and from a single appointment. Ridesharing has offered speed, flexibility and safety to seniors along with the personal attention of a driver. It’s also been a boon for deaf and blind passengers who can now travel with ease using voiceover technology and other tools for the hearing impaired.

Ft. Worth Mayor and panelist Betsy Price not only welcomes rideshare companies into her city, they’re now essential to their transportation network. Price says college students want to get around using apps on their smart phones and seniors need more flexible options, too. Ridesharing has also improved parking downtown and helped alleviate congestion. Ft. Worth has a simple ordinance. Companies submit an application and pay a $500 fee every two years and agree to do FBI background checks on their drivers every year. If they receive a complaint, then the city has the ability to conduct an audit of the company’s books. They also deregulated taxis and no longer inspect them. A rideshare company’s two-way rating system is key to their success: not only do passengers rate their drivers, but drivers also rate passengers. If either one gets persistent low ratings, they’re booted from the system.

Taxis have no rating system and often treat customers poorly. There’s no accountability for bad, unsafe, rude, or unintelligible taxi drivers. A rideshare company’s two-way rating system solved that problem and now taxis feel threatened and have used the power of local government to kick out rideshare companies to keep their monopolies. Such is the case in the city of Austin. Since lawmakers regularly descend on Austin for legislative business in the Lone Star State’s capitol, the city has gotten in the crosshairs of state legislators.

Three bills have already been filed in the legislative session that commenced January 10 to overturn Austin’s ordinance, each offering a uniform, statewide regulation that wouldn’t impede this burgeoning, voluntary transportation solution.

Conservatives often fall prey to the moniker of ‘local control,’ believing government closest to the people is the one that governs best and can be held accountable much more easily than more distant state and federal governments. Austin voters are crying fowl that the local voters’ decision should stand and not be overruled by the heavy hand of state government.

However, when local governments enact red tape that effects the state transportation network or its economic vitality and interests, it becomes the state’s business to step-in. As State Senator Konni Burton recently recounted all local government derives its power from the state. All cities are political subdivisions of the state, and the state has every right to step-in when local governments become tyrannical.

Panelist Josiah Neeley representing R Street Institute believes true local control is individual decision-making, not big government at the local level. He posed this litmus test for when and how the state ought to intervene in local ordinances: “What serves the interest of liberty and freedom?”

Thirty-eight states have adopted statewide solutions for ridesharing. Texas, often considered the cradle of liberty, will no doubt err on the side of freedom and maintaining robust economic choices. If that means rolling back city ordinances that impede such voluntary services as ridesharing and short-term rentals, then so be it.

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of ten turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.