Brattleboro mulls regulating vehicles for hire

Uber and Lyft drivers may have to register under changes to ordinances that the Selectboard will consider in September

BRATTLEBORO — People who live in town and drive for ride-sharing services might soon have to register themselves and their cars if the Selectboard approves a new ordinance next month.

During the last two Selectboard meetings, the Board has discussed changing the section of the town's ordinances that governs taxicabs, broadening its scope to all vehicles for hire, including app-based transportation services like Uber and Lyft.

At the Sept. 4 meeting, the Board will hear public comment and vote on whether to adopt the ordinance.

At the Aug. 21 Board meeting, Town Manager Peter B. Elwell explained the reason for the new regulations.

“The purpose of this ordinance is to extend the regulations that have long been part of the town code for taxicabs for protecting public safety and ensuring the vehicles and drivers are both meeting certain standards,” Elwell said.

Currently, the town regulates taxis but not transportation network companies, limousines, or shuttle vans.

With such ride-sharing services, customers use a smart-phone app to arrange and pay for a ride. Drivers - a network of independent contractors registered with the respective companies - set their own schedules and use their own vehicles, and instead of getting a regular wage, they receive a 75-to-80-percent commission of what the customer pays for the ride. After the ride is over, customer and drivers rate each other using the app.

The changes don't stop with Uber and Lyft. If passed, the ordinance will also regulate other types of vehicles for hire, such as limousines and airport vans, Elwell noted.

Because Uber and Lyft are fairly new to Brattleboro, the drivers have “been under the radar, so to speak,” said Elwell, who added the current taxicab ordinances don't apply to them, “because they're not technically a taxicab.”

Town Attorney Robert Fisher addressed the issue at the Aug. 7 Selectboard meeting. About a year ago, he said, “we were looking at the issue of a sort of uneven [regulatory] playing field” between what he called “transportation network companies” such as Uber and Lyft, and taxis.

Fisher noted the Vermont Legislature has taken up this issue on a state level and has proposed laws requiring drivers with transportation network companies to carry certain levels of insurance and to undergo background checks.

The drivers also have to offer proof of their vehicle's inspection, and they have to adhere to a “zero-tolerance [policy] for alcohol and drugs,” he said.

Fisher said if there's a discrepancy between the town's ordinances and a legislative act, “the state wins.”

But it's not a done deal at the state level. The Legislature created a study committee that will report to the body in January about how to regulate all vehicles for hire, including limousines, taxis, shuttle buses, and the like.

When given the option at the Aug. 7 meeting to either wait to see what the Legislature does early next year, or change the ordinances sooner and begin regulating vehicles for hire, the Selectboard opted to act now.

“I don't want to wait for the Legislature and their study committee,” Board Chair Kate O'Connor said.

Selectboard member Brandie Starr said it's fairer for the town to provide clarity on its policies sooner rather than later.

“The people who are looking to get into this kind of business [should] know what to expect from us,” she said, and noted that although the Legislature's decision could change Brattleboro's ordinance later, “at least [drivers would] have an idea of where they stand with us.”

Not all Board members are convinced this is the way to “level the playing field,” or if taxi drivers and Uber and Lyft drivers are even playing the same game.

“So, in trying to make it fair, it's still slightly unfair,” said Starr, because taxi drivers have institutional backing, and Uber and Lyft drivers don't.

Board member Shanta Lee Gander asked her colleagues to consider the economic reality of living in the Brattleboro area.

“It's not always easy” to find adequate employment in the area, she said, and asked, “How understanding are we to people who may need second or third jobs?”

Gander said she supports the public-safety aspect of regulating ride-share drivers but asked, “How challenging do we make this for people?” She suggested allowing drivers to pay the annual registration fees in increments.

Board member Tim Wessel revealed he had signed up to be an Uber driver.

He didn't stick with it.

“It's not a huge money-maker, and I think the biggest thing I learned is, there are a lot of people dabbling in being an Uber driver,” Wessel said.

If the town asks those drivers to pay the same fees as taxi drivers - $25 each year for the driver, $100 for the car the first year, and $50 for the car's annual renewal - many may decide it's not worth the cost, Wessel said, “because of the state of things with ride-share in Brattleboro.”

Wessel pointed out that for drivers working for cab companies, the business pays the fees, not the employee.

“That's a question for any business in town,” said Fisher, who noted even a shop open part-time still pays the same business licensing fees as a store that's open every day. He told the Board they can consider exemptions, “but that supports less of a level playing field.”

Driving for Uber or Lyft “is a business,” O'Connor said, “and it's a fairness issue.”

O'Connor added, “We're just assuming the taxicabs' [owners] can afford” the fees, and assuming the Uber and Lyft drivers are making less money than taxi drivers.

Gander wasn't convinced.

“There is a difference between a bigger operation, and a small business, and a micro-business,” she said.

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