By the beginning of the new year, ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are likely to win final approval to operate in Rochester, Minn.
Last week, the City Council passed by a 6-0 vote an ordinance that will allow transportation networking companies (TNCs) to begin service in the city of 112,000 people. A second reading at the council’s Dec. 19 meeting or the first meeting of 2017, along with another vote making it law, must still take place before people can begin using their smartphones to arrange a ride.
The vote comes after months of heated debate in the state’s third-largest city. A vote two weeks ago failed on a 3-3 tie and previous votes were delayed over fears from taxicab companies that ride-sharing services would create an uneven playing field.
Over the past few months, some residents have pushed for the ordinance, gathering more than 650 signatures in an online petition presented to the council.
“People are pretty excited,” said City Council Member Michael Wojcik, who has supported the ordinance all along. “We have a taxicab system that leaves riders angry and frustrated. We don’t have the quality public transit system like in the Twin Cities. There is a hole here. A lot of people suffer.”
City Council President Randy Staver said he’s heard from residents that wait times for taxis are often long and service “is less than ideal.” He said he also hears frequently from visitors who ask about Uber. In voting for the TNC ordinance, Staver said, “as an elected body we are being responsive to those who want options.”
The council’s vote came after it fine-tuned the ordinance, which now reads much like those in St. Paul and the Fargo-Moorhead areas. The rules don’t allow services to pick up fares on the street like traditional taxicabs, and drivers must undergo background checks and meet vehicle- and driving-record requirements.
“The goal was to let Uber operate here just like Uber operates everywhere else,” Wojcik said. Even with an ordinance in place, it does not guarantee that Lyft, Uber or other ride-hailing companies will come to town. The companies will have to decide whether the market is big enough to make a go of it, Staver said.
Neither Lyft nor Uber has said whether they will expand to Rochester.
Mary Caroline Pruitt, a spokeswoman for Lyft, said “we are encouraged by what is happening on the policy front, and we look forward to being able to operate in Rochester in the future.”
If the ordinance becomes law, Staver said, the council will revisit it within a year to see how it’s working.
Dean Wickstrom, a partner in Yellow Cab, one of two main cab companies in the city, said he understands why city leaders want to allow TNCs into the city.
“The voters have spoken and to the credit of the City Council members, they listened,” he said. “The taxi industry must accept the arrival of TNCs. Yet we need a level playing field to survive.”
Staver said the council will soon look at the rules for taxicabs and make some modifications to bring them closer to rules governing TNCs. Current rules require cab companies to have at least 15 taxicabs that look similar and have mechanical meters and identifying top lights. Those requirements add $1,500 to each cab. Taxicabs must be licensed and inspected annually.
“What is an Uber driver’s investment in becoming a driver? Twenty minutes of her or his time to complete an online application,” Wickstrom said.
Said Staver, “We’d like this to succeed for everybody involved.”
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768