After more than six months of studying how to change the city’s regulation of taxis, for-hire cars and rideshare services, Seattle City Council members deliberated moving forward with one of three plans presented at a packed committee meeting Thursday.

Sally Clark, Mike O’Brien and Bruce Harrell spent more than half the meeting focused on “Option 3,” which would legalize unlimited, for-profit rideshare services such as Lyft, Sidecar and UberX, as long as their drivers were licensed with the city.

In less than a year of operating within the city, for-profit ridesharing companies have drawn the ire of competing for-hire and taxi drivers who pay hundreds of dollars a year in regulatory fees to operate legally. Although the city has deemed the services of Lyft, Sidecar and UberX illegal, enforcement officials have not gone after its drivers for what would be a misdemeanor offense.

City Council members debated whether it would be fair to keep caps for taxi and licensed for-hire vehicles in place while companies such as Lyft — famous for the pink mustache on the front of their cars — are allowed to expand as much as they want.

O’Brien said that whatever plan the city adopts, it should allow enough flexibility for all parts of the passenger-service industry to innovate.

“Because it’s been regulated, we haven’t allowed for that type of flexibility. We’ve been really prescriptive,” said O’Brien. “It took someone outside our market with a lot of capital to say, ‘We’re going to blow this open and try something new.’ ”

Harrell pointed out that rideshare operators should still be subject to the safety regulations and licenses that govern for-hire and taxi drivers.

“Just because they want to change the dynamics that shouldn’t have an adverse effect on our ability to regulate them,” said Harrell.

“Option 3” would also allow for-hire drivers to acquire taxi licenses and would add 50 taxi licenses for drivers who don’t have a for-hire or taxi vehicle license.
Most for-hire and taxi drivers lease the cars they drive, typically costing them more than $400 a week, and the increased competition has made making a living even more challenging.

Petros Haile, 60, who has been driving taxi cabs in Seattle for 20 years, said he would love to have his own taxi vehicle license. He pays $840 every two weeks to lease a vehicle from Orange Cab. But in the past year, he has struggled to make $300 a week in profit. Because the father of five cannot pay his own rent, last year he moved in with his ex-wife and pays her what he can while helping her with health complications.

“It’s been very hard,” Haile said, eyes watering. “I’ve been driving a long time in this city and, someday, I would like a license.”

Dawn Gearhart, spokeswoman for the Western Washington Taxicab Operators Association, said the main problem with “Option 3” is that it doesn’t regulate rideshare services as much as taxi and for-hire services. That leaves the playing field uneven, she said.

Council members skimmed through the two other plans. One would shut down ridesharing services completely, and one would allow ridesharing companies to continue, but only if both its drivers and vehicles were licensed with the city.

In the latter option, the city would lift the cap on for-hire vehicle licenses to welcome more rideshare drivers, but that would limit how much rideshare companies could expand services.

None of the City Council members was completely in favor of any of the proposals. But they agreed they wanted to “work from” Option 3 as regulation deliberations continue.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.