So here's what's going to happen.
At some point—probably between now and Friday—Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat will enact rules allowing Uber and Lyft to operate within the city of Portland. The bureau will then ink agreements with the companies that mandate they'll share certain anonymized data for the next four months, and Uber and Lyft will pay $20,000 a piece, prove they have insurance, and vouch that their drivers are not hardened criminals and have valid business licenses.
It sounds like a lot, but any day now Uber will be back in Portland.
"It could be a matter of days," Bryan Hockaday, a policy advisor to Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick, said at a lengthy hearing last night, which ended in a somewhat fraught 3-2 vote to provisionally welcome Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) to town.
That hearing, by the way, was exactly what you'd expect from the emotional debate that's played out in Portland since Uber illegally stormed the gates late last year, full of jeers and inappropriate clapping and even a shouted suggestion Commissioner Dan Saltzman had been bought.
Cab companies and drivers urged city council to further refine a proposed 120-day "pilot project" that was on the table, invoking the darkest tales Uber's collected around the world—rapes, assaults, drunk driving, crashes where no insurance company would be held accountable—to paint a sort of hellscape we'd all be living in if TNC's are allowed in the city without tight rules.
Their more reasonable points: That the city shouldn't trust Uber and Lyft to conduct their own background checks of drivers (it doesn't trust cab companies to do the same), and should require more expensive insurance plans.
"It's totally outrageous to cater to the whims of a $40 billion company," said Stephen Kafoury, a lobbyist for the city's taxi companies who, like many of last night's speakers, refused to be bound by the time constraints for testimony set by council. "Your experience with Airbnb should be a good lesson for you here. Uber has a corporate culture that resists government regulation."
TNCs brought their own voices—wooden, overly corporate spokespeople who mostly stuck to their pat lines about being "honored" and "humbled" by Portlanders' support, but also a woman who said her Uber shifts had helped her family avoid bankruptcy, and a former cabbie who said the company was a refreshing change from taxi outfits' unfair practices.
But the thing about hearings like this, at the tail end of months of public process and scads of hearings from a citizen task force, is it's all been said. Commissioners knew the arguments for and against, and had come to the hearing with their positions more-or-less solidified.
Mayor Charlie Hales and Novick had proposed the pilot project, so were definite yes votes. That meant they needed to convince one colleague to sign onto a resolution that would let PBOT make rules to welcome TNCs, and that they'd need a unanimous vote if they wanted to force an immediate code change to create the same rules for cabs.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz was a definite no. She's repeatedly voiced concerns about the safety of services like Uber and Lyft, with particularly strong feelings about the levels of insurance they should be required to carry. That's understandable, given the untimely death of Fritz's husband in an auto accident. Her central argument, though, was that council shouldn't rush because Uber wants in. She wanted the state legislature to take a crack at new insurance laws surrounding TNCs.
It's only barely an exaggeration to say Commissioner Nick Fish might have been the most anti-Uber person in the room. Again and again, he eluded to the company being a bully and bad actor—the transportation version of Wal-Mart, which Portland City Council has elected in the past not to give much of a foothold in Portland. Fish even launched into an entire series of questions to a Lyft representative aimed solely at rehashing Uber's lawless entry into Portland last year. And with his 'no' vote on the resolution, Fish spent much of his remarks on chastising the company.
"I’m not anti ride-share, but I don't like bullies," Fish said. "I don’t care for people or businesses who act like the rules don’t apply to them."
Which left Saltzman, who gave a brief soliloquy about how he probably liked cabs more than the Ubers of the world, but that this was our changing society and there was no reason not to give a new arrangement a shot.
Saltzman was only the second commissioner to vote, but his "aye" ended any suspense. Cabbies started stalking out of the room.
There was more drama over the passage of the ordinance, which, remember, needed to be unanimous (with at least four of five commissioners voting) to go into effect immediately. Fritz tried to convince her colleagues, again, to pull back and treat the matter as a normal ordinance, meaning it would get a second reading next week and go into effect a month later. When that failed, Fritz walked out of the room, setting the table for a unanimous vote (Fish changed his vote, explaining he didn't want to disadvantage cab companies).
So now! We live in a brave new world. For the next four months, there is no limit on the number of drivers cab companies and TNCs can put on the streets. There's not even a limit on the number of cab companies that can operate. But, buyer beware: There's also no limit on what you can be charged.
When all this will truly take root is unclear. All those things I mentioned at the top of this post still need to happen, and PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera said this morning no hard timelines had been worked out for when TNCs could begin operating.
"At this point we’re not putting a specific day on this," Rivera said. "We’re moving quickly to implement the direction we got from council."