SAN ANTONIO - The San Antonio City Council voted in favor of a new pilot program Thursday that will bring the rideshare service Lyft back to the city.
The close 6-5 decision marks the third time in less than a year that the council has voted on changes to the city's rideshare policies.
"We're thrilled with the result," said Lyft Public Policy Manager April Mims. "Lyft is all about safe, affordable and reliable transportation for as many people as possible, and so we're very excited about the opportunity to operate under this temporary pilot program."
The program will run for nine months. During that time, the current policies regulating rideshare in San Antonio will be suspended. The agreement includes annual and random vehicle inspections, a zero-tolerance drug policy, insurance requirements and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
The most contentious part of the agreement is background checks for Lyft drivers.
The pilot program does not require Lyft drivers to be fingerprinted, a demand the city made earlier this year that drove Lyft and the rideshare service Uber out of town.
Instead, the city will encourage drivers to undergo the fingerprint background check by offering it for free. Drivers who successfully complete the fingerprint background check will have a special icon placed on their driver profile within the app, allowing users to see which background check they've completed.
"Consumers will have the opportunity and the option to determine whether or not they want to get in a car with someone based on the background check they've gone through," Mayor Ivy Taylor said.
The debate over rideshare services in San Antonio has raged for nearly two years with opposing sides arguing over public safety and economic fairness at City Hall.
"Anything related to public safety is not negotiable for us. We, at Yellow Cab, and the entire cab industry, is going to maintain a very strong public safety standard," said Yellow Cab President John Bouloubasis.
The vote comes the same week two more incidents involving rideshare drivers made headlines. A woman in Dallas filed a lawsuit against Uber following an alleged sexual assault by a driver who was mistakenly allowed to drive for the provider despite his criminal record. Another woman filed a suit in South Carolina after she was allegedly raped by an Uber driver.
Dozens of drivers addressed the council, asking that they force rideshare companies to play by the same rules as cab and limousine drivers, who submit to mandatory fingerprint background checks in order to receive a permit.
"It's ridiculous that we've changed, now for the third time, these rules and regulations," said Yellow Cab driver Wayne Peretz. "They're disrespecting me (and) the people of San Antonio, because we're wasting more money."
Cab drivers pay the city approximately $43 for their fingerprint background checks. With the potential for hundreds of rideshare drivers to return to San Antonio, after being limited to outlying communities such as Windcrest and Alamo Heights since April, the city could potentially pay thousands of dollars to wave the fees for Lyft drivers for nearly a year.
Mayor Taylor and council members Robert Trevino, Alan Warrick, Rey Saldana, Ron Nirenberg and Joe Krier pushed the hotly contested measure through. The group is hopeful drivers will take advantage of the city's offer to ease public safety concerns.
Council women Rebecca Viagran and Shirley Gonzales joined councilmen Cris Medina, Ray Lopez and Mike Gallagher in voting against the program.
The pilot program is a first for Lyft. Mims said it was a worthy endeavor in order to re-enter the San Antonio market.
"I urge you to consider the agreement before you that has been thoroughly vetted and includes ridesharing policy that has been adopted in 26 state legislatures and dozens of cities," Mims said. "It also includes a couple of provisions that Lyft has never been agreed to before, but was important to San Antonio officials."
Officials within the cab industry have maintained that they welcome the economic competition. Bouloubasis said surge-pricing, which raises the cost of a ride at peak demand times, is not done at Yellow Cab. He said that makes them more cost effective. The biggest issue for taxi and limousine drivers and some of their passengers remains background checks.
"We're not here to keep you out of San Antonio, but you need to play by the rules and do the background checks for public safety," said concerned citizen T.C. Calvert.
When asked before the vote how the pilot program agreement differed from the demands initially made by Lyft in early 2015, Trevino, who spearheaded the effort to bring rideshare back to San Antonio, said, "We're trying to structure something that can involve the public a little bit more and also provide some collaboration between the transportation network companies and the city to get that message out to the public."
Trevino believes the pilot program allows the city to hedge its bet on ridesharing. Officials will monitor several metrics during the nine-month program before deciding whether to make pilot program rules permanent.
"By going through this program like this, we can learn to see what is the public wanting. What is the data giving us? Has the public safety department felt good about what we've done in the process?" he said. "(Mandatory fingerprinting) may or may not become part of the requirement, but we're working toward a long-term solution."
The city continues to negotiate with Uber in the hopes of bringing the rideshare service back to San Antonio, but the two sides have struggled to reach an agreement on a proposal from Uber.
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