Uber-Lyft debate putting Mayor Walsh in a bind

Mayor Martin Walsh.
Mayor Martin Walsh.Craig F. Walker/Globe staff/file 2016

A closely watched bill that would impose new regulations on ride-for-hire firms like Uber and Lyft could die in conference committee, advocates on several sides of the tumultuous debate agree.

Another point on which they concur: Of all the big-name political figures with skin in the game, the one with the most to lose might be one with the least direct influence over its outcome.

Under a March ruling in a lawsuit brought by taxi medallion owners, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh faces a potential federal court order to revise the way the city regulates ride-hailing firms. If Beacon Hill lawmakers don’t enact a statewide plan, the city would be forced to act.


That puts Walsh in the unenviable position of arbiter in a zero-sum contest between the traditional taxi and livery industries and the newer, app-based firms — one that has members of his own administration at odds with one another and could incur dire political consequences. Uber has threatened lawmakers that, if stricter oversight is imposed, they will bolt the city. Taxi drivers, meanwhile, argue that the playing field is tilted against them and that they have paid more than their share to the public till.

“If I’m him, the last thing in the world I would want is the Legislature not to get something done on that,” said a senior Senate Democrat.

The mayor appeared to agree, saying in a telephone interview on Friday, “It puts the city in a very difficult and very unfair position if we can’t come to an agreement through the legislative process,” Walsh said, adding, “It really changes the dynamic of the debate over the legislation.”

Walsh’s escape hatch has been the effort by state lawmakers to agree on a bill, first filed by Governor Charlie Baker early last year, that would bring regulation of the ride-for-hire industry more closely in line with their taxi and limousine rivals. Traditionally competitors, the taxi and limo sides teamed up against Uber and Lyft, joining an arms race of lobbyists and public relations firms.


House and Senate negotiators are working through their differing versions of the bill, with the Senate draft viewed as much friendlier to the ride-for-hire firms because the House wants to impose stricter background-checks for drivers.

Jenifer Pinkham, a lawyer representing the Boston Taxi Owners Association and two Boston taxi license owners who brought the case against city and state officials, said action on the state legislation would dictate the city’s response.

“If the Legislature does something, I believe the city will take the position that, ‘Well, the Legislature is regulating [ride-for-hire firms], so we don’t have to do it’,” she said.

But if no bill passes, Pinkham said, “The city is then in a predicament, because they then have two months to promulgate regulations, and it’s a very short period of time.”

For Walsh, whether he favors the taxis by imposing the same regulations on the app-based drivers or the ride-for-hire industry by resisting the new regulations, every option appears to carry a potentially serious political downside. Walsh’s own deputies are divided, with Boston Police Commissioner William Evans favoring increased oversight of the newer firms and others wary of tarnishing the city’s image as innovation-friendly.

Asked whether city officials could avoid making a decision one way or the other, Pinkham replied, “I don’t think there’s any way out of it. The decision speaks for itself.”


The debate over how the city and state oversee the cars that move their residents is far from the only hurdle facing Walsh. Two of his aides are under federal indictment, he has taken heavy criticism for his handling of unrest at the Boston Latin School, and efforts to bring an IndyCar race to the Seaport recently blew up in the mayor’s face.

But the imbroglio over the so-called Uber bill is different because, unlike other controversies, this is essentially outside Walsh’s control. The former state legislator is largely at the mercy of his former colleagues on Beacon Hill.

Further complicating the picture for Walsh is that two of the House members who appear to have the most influence over the shape of the bill, state Representatives Michael J. Moran of Brighton and conference committee member Aaron Michlewitz of the North End, have been frequent sparring partners with the mayor over both policy and politics.

After helping to recruit Charlotte Golar Richie to join the field in the 2013 mayoral election, both Moran and Michlewitz battled Walsh over liquor license policy and, more prominently, the effort to land the 2024 Olympics for Boston.

In the federal suit, attorneys for the city had argued that holding off on regulating the ride-for-hire firms was logical because their rules could be preempted. But, in his March ruling, US District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton wrote that “the prospect of any of the pending state bills becoming law is speculative at best” and that taxi drivers “face a growing potential for irreparable harm if neither the City nor the State addresses the issues they raise.”


Gorton also wrote that he expected “some resolution during the current legislative session.” He gave the city until Sept. 30 to act.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are growing increasingly uncertain about the bill’s prospects for reaching Baker’s desk and receiving his signature. Clouding its chances are a busy legislative calendar for the final 17 days of the session and sharp disagreements between the House and Senate on a host of other bills.

“Given the schedule and the differences in the bills, I’m not confident that this’ll get done before the end of session,” one senior House member said Wednesday.

If that resolution does not materialize, the onus will be on City Hall to devise regulations, or face a court order to regulate ride-for-hire firms under the same rule that applies to taxis.

The options for Walsh are so limited and unpalatable that several lawmakers this week broke into laughter when asked about the contretemps facing the mayor.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.