New Taxi Companies Need Not Apply in Capital City?

August 11, 2014

Investigative Reports

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ColumbiaEditor’s Note: A Nerve reporter last month rode with a driver for UberX, a popular ridesharing service that S.C. regulators contend has been operating illegally since its launch on July 10 in the Palmetto State. Following is an update about the driver, whose name was changed in this story to protect his identity.

After several weeks of playing stealth games with Columbia police to avoid getting ticketed, Joe figured he would try the “legal” way of becoming a taxi driver in the Capital City.

Joe, whose story The Nerve first reported about last month, said he went last week to the police department hoping to get a required chauffeur’s license as part of his plan to start his own taxicab company as an UberX driver.

The San Francisco-based Uber contends that it is a technology, not transportation, company that connects riders with its “driver partners” – who are not considered company employees – through a smartphone app.

Joe said to obtain a chauffeur’s license from the city police department, he had to pay for the following in advance, according to a department checklist he provided to The Nerve:

  • Physical:  $79
  • Tuberculosis test: $56
  • Separate five-panel drug test: $30
  • State Law Enforcement Division criminal background check:  $25
  • S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles 10-year driving record: $10
  • Total initial cost: $200

In addition, the police department requires that Joe take a “hospitality” class, though he could be issued a conditional chauffeur’s license pending completion of the class – the next one scheduled for Sept. 17 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

If the department approves a license for Joe, he would have to pay an additional $30 fees plus provide two passport photos or four photos if he has not yet taken the hospitality class, according to the department checklist.

But Joe said he wasn’t exactly welcomed when he went last week to the police department with the required paperwork. He said he was told initially that he couldn’t get a chauffeur’s license without first obtaining a city business license, and that the city was “not issuing any more licenses to taxi companies.”

“I spent all this money on it for nothing,” Joe, a recent college graduate, told The Nerve immediately after the department turned him away. “I’m trying to become legal and do it the right way, but there’s no way I could become legal.”

Although frustrated, Joe went that same day to the city business license division. There, he said he was given a more polite reception and provided with documents to fill out to obtain a business license.

In addition to the police department requirements, the license division requires the following for taxi drivers, according to a checklist provided by Joe to The Nerve:

  • A certificate from the state Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS). The ORS in June filed a petition with the S.C. Public Service Commission (PSC) contending that Uber Technologies Inc. has “failed to provide the Commission or ORS any evidence of compliance with the Commission’s driver and vehicle safety requirements,” as reported by The Nerve last month. A public hearing has been rescheduled for Sept. 18, PSC records show.
  • Completion of a two-page application, which must be notarized, for a city “certificate of convenience and necessity”;
  • Completion of a separate business license application and “clearance form,” if necessary;
  • Proof of insurance;
  • Letter specifying the number of vehicles to be placed initially in service and in the future;
  • Specific color and logo information about the taxi vehicles; and
  • “Submission of letter per Section 24-102.”

Under Section 24-102 of the city ordinances, City Council has the authority to “issue or refuse to issue to any applicant a certificate of public convenience and necessity.”

“The burden of showing public convenience and necessity shall rest upon the applicant by providing clear and convincing evidence,” the ordinance reads.

In a Nerve story last week about taxi regulations in the tourist mecca of Myrtle Beach, a city spokesman said applicants for city taxi certificates have the “burden of proving that the need for additional service exists.”

Joe told The Nerve he didn’t know the cost of a city business license for a taxicab company. A spokeswoman in the license division told The Nerve last week that the annual cost varies depending upon where the taxi company is headquartered, the number of registered taxis and gross receipts; the yearly license cost, for example, is $110 for a one-vehicle, in-city company with gross receipts of $10,000 or less.

Joe said he was instructed by the license division to return to the police department with information about the color and logo for his taxi vehicle. But personnel in the police records section were even less enthusiastic about his second visit, he said.

“I said I wanted to open my own independent company,” Joe said. “He (an officer in the records section) was really rude – really heated – and he just shoved my paperwork back under the window.

“They said, ‘We’re not doing anything with Uber.’”

Joe said he didn’t believe he deserved to be treated that way and filed a written complaint with city Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

The Nerve last week sent written questions to spokespersons at the police department and City Hall about Joe’s experience and the city’s position on UberX service in the city.

Police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons in a written response said it was her understanding that a “business license must come first,” and that “CPD does not issue business licenses,” referring further questions about licensing requirements to the business license office.

Timmons said she knew of “at least one individual who inquired here at CPD about a chauffeur’s license.” But she added that while the department keeps records of drivers who are issued licenses, it doesn’t keep a log of those who initially request licenses.

Timmons last month told The Nerve that city officers would issue warnings or tickets to Uber drivers who aren’t licensed or certified by the city if officers “catch them in the act,” though she did not refer to the Uber company by name then and stressed the police department was not targeting the company.

Asked last week if any warnings or tickets have been issued to Uber drivers, Timmons replied, “So far, one verbal warning.”

In a written response last week to The Nerve, Jared Glover, a senior public relations specialist with the city, said Uber is “not currently licensed with the City of Columbia” and noted that two UberX drivers to date have inquired about obtaining a business license. Currently, 24 taxi companies and 296 taxicabs are licensed by the city, he said.

But Glover didn’t directly answer questions about whether the city has any plans now to issue business licenses to Uber drivers, or whether there are any quotas on the total number of business licenses issued at any given time to taxi companies.

Joe told The Nerve he is seriously considering dropping his plans to open his own taxi company, given his experience so far with the city. He said taxi drivers who apparently have the Uber smartphone app have followed him, honking their horns or flashing their lights at him, adding that one taxi driver has been photographing vehicles and license plates of Uber drivers, and reporting them to city police.

“It’s not really worth it,” Joe said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.