Ride services turn to Seattle voters
Three new ride-service companies have invested more than $400,000 in a referendum campaign to try to repeal regulations approved by the City Council.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle’s newest breed of ride-service companies, determined to block new regulations, has so far invested more than $400,000 in a campaign to repeal those rules through a referendum.
Two of the companies, Uber and Lyft, have each contributed more than $200,000 to the campaign, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. The third company, Sidecar, has reported contributing $541 as of Friday.
Since the City Council passed the new rules last month, the group calling itself Keep Seattle’s Ride Options has rushed into campaign mode — getting drivers to ask passengers for their signatures, and paying other workers to collect at least 16,510 signatures by the end of Thursday, the day before the regulations are to take effect.
“The response has been enthusiastic, and we anticipate turning in way more signatures than required,” said Brad Harwood, spokesman for Keep Seattle’s Ride Options.
If enough signatures are gathered, the city would be immediately blocked from enforcing the new rules and couldn’t enact them unless voters reject the referendum.
A vote likely would occur with the August primary.
The regulations require the companies — which use smartphone apps to dispatch drivers utilizing their personal vehicles — to meet the same safety and insurance requirements as taxi companies. They also limit each company to 150 drivers on the road at a time, collectively capping them at 450.
The council would reconsider the caps in a year.
Uber spokesman Andrew Noyes has said the caps would be a huge hit to uberX and its drivers and customer service because it routinely has at least 300 drivers on the road, with at least 900 drivers total in the Seattle area. Lyft and Sidecar have said the law would have a similar effect on them.
Despite the effort, the campaign does have a possible downside for the companies: Getting the referendum on the ballot would also keep the services of Lyft, uberX and Sidecar illegal — just as they have been since entering the Seattle market a little more than a year ago. The city so far has declined to crack down.
Their drivers haven’t been penalized for not meeting all of the same safety training, licensing and insurance requirements that the city requires of taxi and for-hire drivers under the threat of expensive fines.
The companies also have been contracting with unlimited drivers and cars while the city limits the taxi industry to 688 vehicle licenses. Seattle has not granted a new taxi license since at least 1990.
The city attorney’s office decided last year not to enforce current taxi and for-hire laws that make the companies’ so-called rideshare services illegal until the City Council enacted new regulations, which it passed March 17. Over the last year, taxi and for-hire drivers have protested the lack of enforcement, saying the companies enjoy an unfair advantage in not having to meet the safety and insurance standards.
The city attorney’s office declined to comment on how enforcement would be handled during a referendum campaign, referring questions to Mayor Ed Murray, who opposes setting limits on how many drivers the ride services can have on the street.
Murray this week said he thinks it’s possible to negotiate an agreement between the city and the companies to keep a referendum off the ballot. He would not elaborate on what such a negotiation might entail.
“Sure, a referendum is possible — but it also creates an opportunity to bring the stakeholders back to the table,” Murray said. “We face a very tight timeline, but I am hopeful we can still solve this issue without it going to the ballot.”
Meanwhile, the city attorney’s office is studying whether the ordinance is even subject to referendum. If the ordinance can legally be considered administrative, it falls outside the referendum process, said spokeswoman Kimberly Mills.
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said he and his colleagues are still researching their options if the referendum qualifies for the August ballot. Rasmussen, who was one of three council members opposed to placing limits on active drivers, hopes the referendum doesn’t end up on the ballot.
“What concerns me about this referendum is it would reject the whole bill, so all the measures related to safety and insurance would never go into effect,” Rasmussen said Friday. “I’m really curious why they went this route.”
Rasmussen said the council will look into whether it’s possible to put its ordinance on the August ballot to compete with a referendum.
And the ballot could get more crowded still.
A campaign registered last month, Initiative 111, would revise the limit on the number of drivers. Elizabeth Campbell, who is leading that effort, said the initiative would add that drivers should not work under the influence of marijuana.
Unlike the referendum, the initiative needs 20,637 signatures to qualify for the ballot, and the new regulations would remain in effect pending an election.
As to the possibility of three August ballot measures dealing with ride services, Rasmussen said, “It could become quite complicated.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn