by Sarah Fenske
UPDATE at 1:20 p.m. on July 1: The Metropolitan Taxi Commission has responded to Uber's offer -- and free rides will not be happening in St. Louis this weekend. We've updated our story and headline accordingly.
Scroll to the bottom of the story for the very latest.
Original story follows.
UberX could be coming to St. Louis as early as tomorrow -- whether regulators are ready or not. And for this weekend only, the rides would be free.
That's the sales pitch made by the ridesharing app's general manager in a letter to the Metropolitan Taxi Commission on Monday, offering to give free lifts to riders throughout St. Louis city and county from Thursday, July 2 to Sunday, July 5. All Uber needs to extend its generosity, the letter suggests, is the commission's blessing.
But for Uber, that has proved the trickiest part of all. The company has stated for a few months now that it's ready to set up shop in the area -- but it has yet to get regulatory approval. It fears an impasse on two key issues: the type of background checks performed on drivers, and whether those drivers must undergo drug tests.
The offer, though, has almost certainly put regulators on the defensive. No one wants to be in the position of stopping drunk drivers from getting free rides home, especially during a three-day weekend.
And if the commission accepts, and everything goes smoothly, it's easy enough to see the strategic advantage that gives Uber -- if its background checks are good enough for free rides, why not for ones that cost money?
In the letter, Uber asked for an answer by today at noon. As of late yesterday afternoon, the company hadn't received any word, a spokeswoman told us.
Metropolitan Taxi Commission Chairman Lou Hamilton didn't respond to a message seeking comment yesterday afternoon. And at 4:30 p.m., someone at the taxi commission offices told us that the commission's executive director had gone home for the day and couldn't be reached after hours.
In the mean time, though, signs look positive for free rides. Mayor Slay, for one, has tweeted his support:
Uber has offered a free trial of its X service for the long holiday weekend. It is a positive gesture that we welcome. #fgs— MayorSlay.com (@MayorSlay) June 30, 2015
This seems like a good way to preview any problems that might arise later when it operates vehicles for hire next month. #fgs— MayorSlay.com (@MayorSlay) June 30, 2015
And at least one member of the taxi commission, Pi restaurateur Chris Sommers, is on the same page:
It's worth noting, though, that Slay appointed Sommers to the taxi commission specifically to help push through approval for Uber. Some other commission members work for (or own) cab companies -- which means they might be far more skeptical about tech companies bearing gifts. To cabbies, free Uber rides wouldn't just be a way for a competitor to get its foot in the door; they'd be a direct threat to their own bottom line on a lucrative holiday weekend.
UPDATE at 1:20 p.m.
The Metropolitan Taxi Commission has responded to Uber, saying they're only OK with the free rides if Uber puts its drivers through, yes, background checks involving fingerprints, plus drug tests.
The commission offered to waive fees for those temporary registrations, but to Uber, the requirement is still a deal killer. Its drivers' pool has already gone through the company's background checks. Adding in buccal swabs and a fingerprinting process before the weekend would be impossible at this point (and contrary to what Uber believes is necessary for its business model in the longer term as well).
And that, says Uber general manager Sagar Shah, means the offer for a weekend of free rides is off the table.
"It's extremely disappointing that the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission has chosen to block Uber from providing the people of St. Louis with safe rides for free during the Fourth of July weekend," Shah said in a prepared statement provided to Riverfront Times. "During months of discussions, it's been made crystal clear that onerous requirements such as fingerprinting and drug testing would render it impossible for Uber to enter St. Louis, temporarily or permanently. Mandating these requirements, which do nothing to improve safety, is merely a charade intended to deny the people of St. Louis transportation options at a time they need it the most.
"Saying no to free rides to reduce drunk driving is wrong."
This latest development doesn't bode well for the taxi commission's next meeting in July. If the commission insists on these types of background checks, Uber has said it can't set up shop in St. Louis.
UPDATE at 5 p.m.
In a more recent series of tweets, Mayor Slay seemed to suggest that this marriage can still be saved:
I believe Uber's offer of free rides this weekend will make our roads safer. I hope they do them. #fgs— MayorSlay.com (@MayorSlay) July 1, 2015
And if they do, I will use them. #fgs— MayorSlay.com (@MayorSlay) July 1, 2015
Uber has agreed to regulations in other cities. Other cities' regulators have agreed to Uber. STL can figure this out this month. #fgs— MayorSlay.com (@MayorSlay) July 1, 2015
We welcome tips and feedback. Contact the writer via email at firstname.lastname@example.org