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Uber, MTC prepare for June 23 meeting

Saint Louis, Mo. — For more than a year, ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have been looking to expand their business into the St. Louis metro region. For over a year, they’ve failed.

In that time, Columbia and Kansas City have both embraced Uber drivers, and the billion-dollar company’s operation continues to expand. But in St. Louis, one of the largest metro regions in the country without an Uber presence, negotiations have taken longer than expected, and the cause depends on who you ask.

If you ask Uber officials, they’ll tell you that the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission has several members that are from the taxi industry (a requirement of the Commission’s structure) that are not interested in competition. Uber says those members want to create a regulatory framework that favors their business model, not ride-sharing companies like Uber.

But if you ask representatives of the MTC, or other folks negotiating with Uber, they’ll paint a much different picture. City officials and MTC representatives will tell you that Uber wants what it wants, that they give very little ground, and that Uber is better at winning the PR battle than hashing out the details in private meetings.

And the details do need work. Uber doesn’t want fingerprint-driven background checks conducted by the Missouri Highway Patrol for their drivers, calling it unnecessary and saying their own internal check is better. MTC regulations require drug tests for new drivers, something Uber says is merely a “snapshot” in time while their own customer feedback gives “real time reviews” of drivers.

It’s a fight they’ve had in several cities. In Kansas City, a rift over background checks nearly ended Uber’s presence there for good, until the ride-sharer began pushing for a broad statewide regulatory framework in Jefferson City and leveraged Kansas City officials into a better deal.

Sagar Shah, Uber general manager for St. Louis, told The Missouri Times that he wasn’t sure what the MTC planned to do at it’s June 23 meeting, and that there “wasn’t much transparency” about MTC plans.

But the characterization gets flipped when you talk to Lou Hamilton, the volunteer chairman of the MTC, who says he personally wants Uber to operate in St. Louis, but reminds folks that the devil is in the details.

“I want them to operate here,” Hamilton said. “But we have a responsibility when it comes to public safety, so we have to meet those responsibilities going forward.”

Hamilton said he’s been “very clear” about his intentions on June 23 to lead a discussion about ride-sharing regulations and what can be done to welcome Uber or their smaller competitors like Lyft. Hamilton said he had concerns when Uber told the press that the MTC isn’t interested in negotiations, saying he’s spoken with Uber officials at least once weekly since April.

Shah said he’d hoped the commission would be prepared to embrace Uber by the July 4 weekend, when plenty of St. Louis folks will be in need of sober drivers. While that goal is looking more and more like a pipe dream, good negotiations would have Uber up-and-running by late summer or early fall. Who has to give what in order to achieve that goal, once again, depends on whom you ask.