Uber Offers Oregon Legislature a Deal: Get Portland Regulators Off Our Backs, and We'll Help Fund Your Transportation Package

Company would levy tax of 50 cents per ride, and send that money to Salem for electric cars. Critics blast the idea.

Traffic on the Burnside Bridge. (Vivian Johnson)

Uber, the controversial ride-hailing company, is making a last-minute push to get what it wants in Salem this session.

Earlier this year, a bill failed that would have granted the Silicon Valley company preemption from regulation by Portland and other cities. The bill would have legalized ride-hailing companies across the state and placed oversight of them at the state, rather than local, level.

Currently, cities regulate taxis and other cars for hire within their boundaries—and in cities where Uber and Lyft operate, such as Portland, the cities regulate those companies' operations also.

As lawmakers search for the votes to pass a 10-year, $8.2 billion transportation funding package contained in House Bill 2017, Uber has floated a new proposal.

Lawmakers in both chambers and lobbyists working on the bill tell WW that the ride-hailing company has offered to pay a new surcharge 50 cents per ride that could help fund an expansion of electric vehicles as part of the transportation package.

In exchange, Uber wants the statewide pre-emption on local regulation it sought earlier in the session.

Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley says the proposal is "a first-of-its kind policy in the nation promoting the expansion of sustainable transportation." Hambley says if the idea were to be included in legislation, it would likely include all ride-hailing companies but the exact amount of the surcharge and other details remain under discussion.

"Uber continues to support the environmental community's push for stronger investments  in sustainable transportation and emissions reduction," Hambley said in a statement.

"It is directly in line with our goal of getting more people into fewer more fuel-efficient vehicles. We therefore back a technology-use surcharge, attached to proposed statewide ride-share regulations, that would fund an electric vehicle program and other sustainable transportation options throughout Oregon."

Doug Moore the executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation voters says his group is a strong supporter of a surcharge on the ride-hailing companies. Moore says the money could help fund elements that are lacking in a transportation package heavy on highway expansions and light on more environmentally sustainable projects.

"With regard for the green fee, its something the environmental community sees  as potentially providing a dedicated funding stream for electric vehicle infrastructure, as well as bike and pedestrian improvements," Moore says.

The "green fee" is still in discussion stages, so there's not yet much financial data available.

Moore thinks if lawmakers were to approve it, the fee could generate as much as $15 million in the first two years and "grow exponentially from there."

This year, Portland officials expect there will be seven million rides for-hire rides paid for within the city. Nobody knows how many of those rides will be provided by ride-hailing companies as opposed to conventional taxis, but the ride-hailing companies' market share is significant.

Since Uber arrived in Portland in 2013, the company has had a contentious relationship with City Hall, one that grew even more strained earlier this year after the New York Times reported the company used technology it called Greyball to evade the scrutiny of city inspectors.

A city investigation found no evidence the company had used Greyball here since 2014, but City Council subsequently issued a subpoena of Uber.

On a national level, an investigation by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder completed this week led to the resignation of a top company executive, Emil Michael, and board member David Bonderman. (The use of Greyball in Portland was part of that investigation.) It was also followed by a decision by the company's embattled CEO, Travis Kalanick, to take a leave of absence.

In this climate, Uber's willingness to offer up new money to get city regulators off its back is meeting with skepticism.

Critics of Uber—including the city of Portland, the AFL-CIO, which represents taxi drivers, and the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association—are lining up to oppose preempting local regulation for ride-hailing companies,  and they don't much care if Uber is willing to pay for electric vehicles.

"Uber has a sick corporate culture," Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, a persistent Uber critic, says. "Now they are pitching a last-minute, back-room deal in Salem to weaken consumer protections, workers' rights and accountability. And they are linking it to a surcharge on rides to fund electric vehicles. The legislature should reject this cynical proposal."

Arthur Towers, a lobbyist for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, says his group hasn't taken a position on the transportation package overall, but it opposes Uber's renewed effort to escape local regulation.

"Our members fight for workers who face on the job discrimination, wage theft and sexual harassment," Towers says. "We are very concerned about fair treatment of workers in this shared economy and transportation companies are the first example of where there could be problems."

Graham Trainor, chief of staff for the Oregon AFL-CIO, also expressed his group's opposition to Uber's pitch.

"Uber's business practices around the country are troubling," Trainor says. "We believe fairness and dignity on the job. Workers need more protections—not a regulatory framework that would give them less."

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