City considers rules to allow ride-share operators at airports

Oct. 30, 2014Houston Chronicle

Days before new paid-ride regulations take effect in Houston, city officials turned their attention Thursday to how app-based ride service companies like Uber could be permitted and charged at airports in the coming months.

The Houston proposal mirrors rules in Nashville, Tenn., requiring the app-based companies to get airport-specific permits and pay set fees for rides originating from the airport, Houston Airport System Director of Aviation Mario Diaz told council members. The companies would be responsible for the same fees taxi drivers are currently charged — $2.75 at Bush Intercontinental and $1.25 at Hobby per departing ride.

If  the rules are approved, Houston would join Nashville and San Francisco in establishing regulations that let the app-based ride services into airports. Chicago has rules that allow only UberTaxi, a service that connects riders to professional taxi drivers, to operate at its two major airports.

Uber and Lyft came to Houston in February, hoping to persuade Houston officials to modify paid ride rules to accommodate them. City Council revised the rules in August, setting up a process by which the companies could continue to operate. Those rules go into effect Nov. 4. Before getting an airport permit, the vehicles would need to be permitted by the city.

Diaz said the ride-share companies would be responsible for building a virtual geo-fence around the airports, which would allow the company to track when a driver leaves the fenced area. Houston Airport System would designate specific staging zones outside the arrivals and departure area where the cars could wait.

Once they connected with a passenger and entered the geo-fence,  the drivers would enter a black-out zone where the car no longer appears on the smartphone app. Diaz said that will prevent cars dropping off a rider from immediately picking up a new one.

Most council members at the Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee meeting had procedural questions about the set-up.  Councilman Dave Martin  was concerned about the companies self-reporting their trips.

“I don’t think we can put the cart before the horse,” Martin said. “We have to have a collection process in place with an appropriate audit process in place.”

Diaz assured Martin the airport would do spot audits of the ride-share vehicles to check whether the reported monthly total of trips matched up with volume at the airport.

Roman Martinez, president of Yellow Cab Houston, said Diaz’s proposal is a “good temporary solution,” but he urged council members not to rush any changes. Martinez pointed to the 16 months City Council spent wrangling over the paid-ride regulations.

“It’s a little premature,” Martinez said. “(They) haven’t been permitted and we’re already looking at what we’re going to do at the airports.”