Charleston City Council gives initial OK for new Uber, taxi rules

Taxis soon will be able to charge higher rates if Charleston City Council gives final approval to a new ordinance governing taxis, limos and transportation network companies, such as Uber. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Charleston officials say they have come up with a way for traditional taxi services and Uber to coexist, after about nine months of discussion and negotiation.

Charleston City Council Monday gave initial approval to a new transportation ordinance that will govern taxis and limousines, as well as the ride-hailing service Uber and other transportation network companies that use GPS-enabled apps to dispatch freelance drivers in personal vehicles. It passed in a 10-3 vote. Councilmen James Lewis, Robert Mitchell and Rodney Williams were opposed.

Uber spokesman Dave Barmore said he had problems with the ordinance, specifically a part that requires Uber drivers to obtain business licenses. He asked Council to defer the vote until the state Legislature passes statewide regulations for Uber, but Council went ahead with the vote.

But the most contentious part of the ordinance among Council members was about proposed increases in taxi fares, especially a provision that would allow taxi fares to double between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Lewis said that would place a hardship on people who worked late-night jobs in the hospitality industry.

Several council members who voted in favor of the ordinance, said they are willing to discuss and possibly amend the part about doubling fares before the body takes the final two votes on the matter.

Bill Moody, chairman of Council’s Traffic and Transportation Committee, said the 18-page ordinance contains many details, but basically it brings transportation network companies, which previously operated with little or no regulation, under a larger transportation ordinance.

“I’m pretty happy” with the plan, Moody said. About 90 percent of transportation companies of all kinds that weighed in on the ordinance are satisfied with it, he said.

That’s pretty good, he said, because “change is always kind of disruptive.” Under the ordinance, taxis, limos and Uber will no longer be allowed to stop along King Street in the city’s entertainment district to drop off or pick up passengers between the hours of 12:30 and 3 a.m. Friday through Sunday.

Uber and limos must pick up and drop off passengers on side streets.

There aren’t any other major changes for limos, Moody said.

But taxis during those hours must line up at four designated taxicab stands, which will be located on side streets just off King Street, and pick up passengers on a first-come, first-served basis. The expanded taxicab plan is another attempt by the city to rein in rowdy revelers on upper King Street. A similar system has been in place in the Market-area for more than a year, and city leaders have said it has been successful. Cabbies who violate the rules face a fine of $262.

Taxis also can increase their rates. Instead of a $4 charge for the first two miles, drivers can charge $5. And the charge for each additional one-fifth of a mile would increase from 35 cents to 50 cents. Taxis also can charge double their daytime fares between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Transportation network companies will have to screen their drivers, including reviewing their driving and criminal histories. They won’t be able to hire certain drivers, including those whose licenses have been revoked or suspended, or those who habitually violate traffic laws; abuse drugs and alcohol; have been convicted of driving while intoxicated in the past five years; or are required to register as sex offenders.

The ordinance requires Uber drivers to have business licenses.

Uber also is required to have an insurance policy with $1 million in liability coverage. The policy must cover the actions of Uber drivers while they are scanning an app for fares, driving to pick up passengers and transporting passengers to a destination.

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.