Fort Worth slow-walks vehicle rules

Fort Worth plans to regulate app-based transportation companies like Uber and Lyft, which are currently unregulated by the city.
Fort Worth plans to regulate app-based transportation companies like Uber and Lyft, which are currently unregulated by the city. Star-Telegram

Fort Worth has lagged behind Dallas and some other cities in regulating app-based transportation companies like Uber and Lyft, and those companies compete fiercely with tightly regulated taxicab companies in a struggle to dominate the vehicle-for-hire business.

And as the city has taken its sweet time these past few months, the landscape is changing.

The result, says Councilman Jungus Jordan, who has focused on transportation issues during his 10 years in office, might be less regulation than was initially contemplated.

Still, important decisions are yet to be made, and the City Council might not end up making them until September.

“We don’t see a great urgency,” Jordan told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board on Friday. “The free market is driving things right now.”

Uber and Lyft riders use smartphone apps to summon and pay unregulated fees for transportation, while cabs charge city-controlled rates.

Two crucial changes in the local scenario happened almost simultaneously in recent weeks.

Locally, the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Board decided May 7 to get out of the business of regulating for-hire vehicles and their drivers at the airport.

For many years, before app-based Uber and Lyft came along and as taxicabs and shuttles provided the bulk of visitor transportation to and from Dallas and Fort Worth and the airport, DFW was a stern enforcer of standards for vehicle cleanliness and age.

Rules even called for driver knowledge of basic English and of enough local geography on both sides of the Metroplex to get visitors where they wanted to go.

For DFW to drop out of that role is a sea change.

New policies adopted by the Airport Board say that as long as carriers have operating authority in either Dallas or Fort Worth, and drivers have permits from one of those two DFW owner cities, the airport will remove itself from the picture.

Meanwhile in Austin, efforts to create a statewide regulatory system specifically for Uber and Lyft and similar companies collapsed as this year’s legislative session neared its end.

Monday is the session’s last day.

Lawmakers, with an even more conservative bent this year than in previous sessions, apparently were in no mood to create new government regulations.

Still, the legislative discussions pointed to key sticking points: insurance requirements, vehicle inspections and driver background checks.

Dallas already knew that. After about a year of discussing and arguing, the Dallas City Council adopted new vehicle-for-hire regulations in December.

The new rules went into effect April 30.

The new rules are tough. All drivers have to pass background checks initiated by the city. Vehicles must pass a 31-point inspection.

Dallas gave a break to Uber and Lyft on insurance requirements.

Taxicabs must be covered by commercial insurance 24/7. But since app-based drivers use personal vehicles and sometimes aren’t available to accept rides, the city allowed them to have tiered insurance covering different types of operation.

Fort Worth city staff members met in February and again in March with representatives of app-based transportation providers, limousine companies, taxicab companies and shuttle operators to discuss regulation issues.

The guiding concepts are public safety, financial stability and visitor impressions as they ride into and out of Fort Worth, said Jordan and Gerald Taylor, the city’s lead ground transportation officer.

Taylor briefed the council’s Infrastructure and Transportation Committee on April 14.

The city seems to be headed toward required vehicle inspections, operating fees, two-year driver permits, criminal history checks and drug tests. Tiered insurance policies are likely.

But a key point is whether the city will supervise rule compliance directly or leave it to companies to guarantee that they have been done.

“As long as we have assurance that this is being done responsibly,” Jordan said, “maybe we don’t need to create a bureaucracy.”

Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa said meetings with the stakeholder group will continue, and final recommendations to the council might not come until September.