Why is Uber wrong for Juneau?

City officials cite multiple reasons

Many locals are skeptical of Uber coming to Juneau, in part to protect the well-being of local taxi companies. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)

As state legislators debate the big-picture effects of Senate Bill 14, one that would bring ride-sharing companies such as Uber or Lyft to Alaska, local decision-makers discussed their concerns with the bill Monday.

 

At Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly, lobbyist Kevin Jardell, police officers and members of the public gathered at the Assembly chambers at City Hall and mostly agreed on one main concern with the bill. Section 7 of the bill states that “a municipality may not enact or enforce an ordinance regulating transportation network companies or transportation network drivers.”

City Manager Rorie Watt started the meeting off by saying that while Uber could work elsewhere, having the company in Juneau would be challenging due to “peculiar needs” centering around Juneau’s distinctive tourism calendar.

“I don’t think we’re ready for Uber in Juneau because of our seasonal tourism aspect,” Watt said. “I know there are other communities in the state that are interested. I don’t want to oppose that. I don’t know how we’re going to be able to walk that line.”

Though Watt, Jardell and many Assembly members offered different angles, they largely agreed that if ride-sharing companies were to come to Juneau, the local government should have a say in how the companies operate. Juneau Police Department representatives added that bringing in new transportation companies with state-regulated rules would be difficult to enforce.

Many in attendance were worried about more traffic during the summer, the limited parking in town and the well-being of the existing tour and cab companies. Assembly member Debbie White likened Uber’s effect on existing companies to that of Airbnb on hotels, and fellow Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski said she’s seen Uber work elsewhere, but she’s skeptical about its fit in Juneau. At the very least, she said, Section 7 presents an issue for the city.

“We don’t have near enough information to think this might be OK in Juneau,” Gladziszewski said. “I think that you want to maintain local control. We have very specific transportation needs. We have taxis, we have shuttles, we have buses, all of that stuff.”

They also wanted to have a say in background checks, car examinations and insurance for drivers. Uber does not currently offer these services up to the standards that the Assembly is hoping to have for its drivers, Assembly member Loren Jones said.

Assembly member Jesse Kiehl was adamant about the issues of background checks as well, pointing out that this bill doesn’t just allow Uber into the state, but it also allows in smaller ride-sharing companies whose background checks might be extremely poorly regulated.

“We have an obligation as a city to protect public safety,” Kiehl said, “and not have the state say, ‘No, no. You just go ahead and trust the companies. You don’t have a choice.’”

Assembly member Jerry Nankervis asked if it was possible for Juneau to merely opt out of adopting the bill if the state accepts it. Jardell said “anything is possible,” but that the overall market in Alaska is so small for Uber and Lyft that “without the whole market, it’s difficult to make it work.” The service might even be introduced in smaller communities such as Sitka or Cordova, Jardell said.

Though he acknowledged multiple times that the bill has more momentum now than ever before, Jardell was hopeful that there are ways to negotiate for revising the bill. The purpose of Monday’s session was to develop a consensus to give Jardell a direction when he talks to legislators. Jardell, who has been a lobbyist on the city’s behalf since 2013, said communication with state-wide lawmakers is crucial.

“If you want to just accept these new business models are coming,” Jardell said, “but you want some control over it, then I would say we try to sit down and negotiate some language that maintains some control.”

 


 

Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com.

 


 

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