The cities of Pasco and West Richland are poised to embrace Uber and similar companies this week.
But even if both adopt Uber-friendly rules, it is unclear how quickly the San Francisco-based ride-hailing service will move to expand its Tri-City footprint.
Uber has secured a license in Kennewick but more than a month after Richland adopted its own rules, the company has not yet applied for a license to operate there.
The city expected an application two weeks ago. Uber officials could not be reached about its Tri-City plans.
Kennewick amended its taxi ordinance to accommodate Uber in November, and the company’s independent drivers began serving passengers there Dec. 15.
Richland adopted an Uber ordinance shortly before Christmas. Pasco and West Richland planned to follow suit in January but didn’t because city council meetings were canceled because of snow.
For the time being, Uber’s Tri-City drivers such as Magen Hilburn can only collect passengers in Kennewick and areas where local codes are silent on taxi service — the unincorporated areas of Benton and Franklin counties and the smaller cities. They may take passengers to any destination.
Hilburn, who lives in Kennewick, said the inability to pick up passengers in Richland and Pasco means some passengers have to walk across municipal boundaries, especially the Kennewick-Richland boundary near the Columbia Center mall. And it means if she takes a passenger to Pasco, she can’t pick up another person on the return trip.
The mother of four young children said she started driving to make money and for adult conversation. Despite the limits on where she can pick up passengers, Hilburn said Uber keeps her busy. She drove a dozen people on Saturday and said she favors late-night hours, when passengers are chatty.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I enjoy driving intoxicated people.”
It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy driving intoxicated people.
Magen Hilburn, Uber driver
The West Richland City Council plans to discuss its Uber ordinance when it meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday at 3803 W. Van Giesen St.
The Pasco City Council expected to discuss its own “Uber” ordinance Monday night. Even if it signs off on the proposed ordinance, it is unclear if Uber will seek to operate there because Pasco wants drivers to be fingerprinted as part of background checks. Uber indicated that requirement is a deal-killer.
Mid-Columbia cities have sparred with Uber for nearly a year over what rules best apply to the service. Uber drivers briefly served the Tri-Cities in 2015 but the company shut them down when it realized they were operating under licenses issued by Spokane.
Kennewick and Uber came to an agreement only after an impasse over background checks that consumed much of 2016. The city initially insisted it wanted to conduct the criminal background checks but Uber balked, saying it would be overwhelmed by applications. Kennewick yielded, when Uber agreed to allow it to audit results of the third-party checks.
Uber won other key concessions as well. Unlike traditional taxis, Uber’s independent drivers do not need to mark their cars, post rates or driver photos because that information is sent to passengers when rides are booked through Uber’s smartphone app.
Pasco, Richland and West Richland followed Kennewick’s lead. Their codes and proposed codes are nearly identical to Kennewick’s, with the exception of Pasco’s requirement for fingerprints.
The companies must secure business licenses with fees based on the number of drivers or individual contractors. Drivers must also apply for licenses, undergo background checks, carry the minimum insurance allowed under state law and submit their vehicles for safety inspections.
Drivers for internet-based companies may only collect passengers who book rides through an app or the online system. Traditional taxicabs may solicit and accept street hails, as before.
San Francisco-based Uber is a privately held company operating in more than 50 countries. The company retains 20 percent of the revenue generated through its smartphone app.