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Hotseat: Noah Ernst

The spokesman for a new coalition of Portland cab companies worries about Uber and what dumbed-down taxi rules will mean for Portland.

He's been in the taxi business four years—first as a driver and now as a superintendent with employee-owned Radio Cab.

He's also the spokesman for a new lobbying group called the Transportation Fairness Alliance, a coalition of five cab companies aimed at making sure the city of Portland stands up to Uber.

Uber extracted a deal from city officials last month that will allow it and other so-called ride-sharing companies to operate in Portland.

Ernst and the cab coalition say they don't fear Uber, even though the app-driven giant has squashed other towns' taxi businesses. The coalition wants Uber, Lyft and other companies to live under the existing taxi rules in Portland.

Last week, the coalition parked 50 cabs in Pioneer Courthouse Square to demand a say in the new taxi standards—something they say the city has so far denied them.

WW: What are you looking for?

Such as?

We do a vehicle inspection on a yearly basis. Ride-sharing companies will tell you they do inspections. The inspections are done at the local brake shop. They cost $12. If you've ever had work done on your car, how long does a mechanic work for $12? About five minutes.

We see instances where people are driving Uber vehicles using somebody else's phone and then attacking passengers. That's happened. We've seen people who have passed the background check that have major felonies on their record.

How is their background check different from your background check?

I don't know how they do their background checks.

We have cameras in all our cars, forward-facing cameras, rear-facing cameras. Seems like a no-brainer thing in terms of protecting the public. You don't have to worry about Radio Cab saying that we apologize that we took you on an inefficient route or when an Uber driver rapes you in a parking lot. Also, it protects the drivers. We had drivers who had guns and knives pulled on them.

Are you concerned about who gets served when Uber comes to town?

The disabled, the people who are taking short trips from supermarkets, people who live in areas that might be underserved—we're required to take all those people. Those people are not always profitable fares for us as a company. Wheelchair vans are expensive to purchase.

Let's say someone from Uber were sitting across from you. What question would you ask them?

What regulations, specifically, do you think are these outdated, antiquated regulations that you shouldn't have to comply with?

What we hear is a very broad general statement: These regulations are antiquated. These regulations are protectionist. These are regulations we shouldn't have to comply with. And I would ask them: If your insurance is as good as what we're required to provide, then what is the problem with complying with the regulation? If your background checks are as good as the background checks done here, why do you have a problem with your drivers getting a driver permit in the city of Portland?

It's not just about wanting to protect real, living-wage jobs for working-class people. We would object to a broad open market with an unlimited number of cabs. I don't think that leads to public safety.

You say you can handle competition. But taxi companies protested 50 licenses to Union Cab in 2012—cabbies circling City Hall honking their horns angrily.

[The city of Portland] has told us how many cabs we can have. Often, they have done it in a way that we think makes very little sense. We have companies who've shown a large rider base, a large number of calls and dispatched orders, asking for additional cabs.

Instead, cabs will be awarded to some other company based on the ethnicity of the people who are forming the company, or based on some other criteria. I'm just saying when we look at the reasons permits were issued, it often has very little to do with helping the cab companies actually serve their customers. 

City Hall is looking at lifting many rules that govern your industry. Doesn't that untie your hands?

If you do it in a way that compromises public safety, that's not good for us as an industry, it's not good for fares, it's not good for customers. I tell people, as an analogy, that I could build houses very quickly and very cheaply if you removed all the building-code regulations and you didn't require me to have inspections.

One idea is to get rid of metered rates.

It's a terrible idea. The meters were not put in cabs to protect the drivers. Meters were put into cabs to protect the public from price-gouging. Uber [uses] surge pricing, which is not 5 more cents or 10 more cents or 30 more cents. It's multiple dollars above fare-base rate. The meter rate is determined by the city of Portland, not by us.

When you get in a cab, you pay the same price when it's 2 in the morning and everybody wants a cab as you pay at 1 in the afternoon when nobody wants a cab. Nobody's getting rich. 

WW interns Anna Walters and Gabriella Dunn contributed to this story.