Uber Rolls Into the Flathead Valley

Montana Legislature opened doors for ride-hailing services in the Treasure State last session

By Tristan Scott
Uber driver Andrew Baker, pictured on Aug. 26, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The ride-hailing company Uber recently set up shop in the Flathead Valley, and already a fleet of independent drivers is ferrying passengers to destinations in Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Bigfork, and beyond.

“I even had a trip down the Seeley-Swan,” Raymond Pearson, an Uber driver who lives in Whitefish, said of one far-flung fare.

Pearson is among a half-dozen drivers in the Flathead who registered with the ride-sharing service as an independent contractor.

The service works by allowing prospective drivers to become independent contractors and use their own vehicles to provide rides. Customers order up a lift using an app on their mobile devices, which indicate where drivers are operating in the area, and how long the wait will be.

In metropolitan areas, there are apt to be hundreds of drivers blipping across a smart phone screen at any given time, but in the Flathead Valley there are only about six drivers currently registered.

“A lot of people just don’t realize it’s here,” Andrew Baker, a 24-year-old Uber driver, said.

Uber officially opened its doors in Montana Aug. 1, and slowly but surely a host of locally based independent contractors is assembling across the Flathead Valley, which indeed comes as surprising news to some would-be customers.

“Most out-of-town visitors already have the app, and they are surprised that we have it here,” Pearson said. “I think the majority of locals just aren’t aware that Uber operates in the Flathead, so they haven’t even downloaded the app. Others have used it in a bigger city, so when they see a car here they are excited. Surprised but excited.”

Not everyone is excited, however. Lawmakers’ decision to open the state’s doors to ride-share services like Uber and Lyft is rankling traditional taxi cab companies, who have pushed back against the influx of independent contractors, saying the service creates an uneven playing field because the drivers are exempt from the regulatory fees and constraints to which local companies are bound.

Randy Cowger, the owner of Glacier Taxi, said he pays a fee to provide taxi services at Glacier Park International Airport, as well to register with the state of Montana. Under Montana law, Uber’s independent contractors aren’t subject to the same fees.

“If Uber takes off and they hit me hard enough, I am going to have to lay someone off. They would be displacing hard working drivers who have been doing this for years,” Cowger said. “They don’t have to pay any fees to drive. I have to pay them, but they don’t. So they are encouraging these guys to come along and take those jobs away from Montanans.”

Pearson, who works as a security guard, began driving for Uber to supplement his income, and plans on accepting most of his fares while his kids are at school.

The lion’s share of his fares are out-of-state visitors who need rides to and from the airport, or back to their hotels once the bars close.

“Right now it’s a lot of tourists, a lot of Canadians, and on the weekends it’s been a lot of bar trips,” he said. “I’ve also been driving folks home from wedding parties. People have a good time and then they need a safe ride home.”

Drivers must be 21 or older, go through a background check, have a Montana driver’s license and up-to-date registration, as well as personal insurance. The final requirement could prove hard to obtain, as SB 396 also allows insurance companies to deny coverage to those attempting to drive for carriers like Uber.

Until August, taxi services in the Flathead Valley were limited to traditional taxi services like Glacier Taxi.

But that changed when the Public Service Commission gave Uber permission to operate statewide in December, a move that followed the 2015 Legislature passing a law that made changes to the state’s motor carrier laws.

The eight-month delay in bringing the service to Montana was caused by a state investigation into whether Uber drivers would be classified as employees or independent contractors. The distinction helps determine worker’s rights, including entitlement to unemployment benefits.

The company’s proposed areas of service are “between all points and places within the state of Montana” and it has $100,000 in operating capital, according to the application.

Its insurance coverage will include $1 million for death, injury or property damage while a driver is providing a ride to a fare. The coverage is $100,000 for death or injury per incident or $25,000 for property damage when the driver is logged into the Uber app but not engaged in a ride.

During the 2015 Legislature last spring, Rep. Ellie Boldman-Hill Smith, D-Missoula, worked with Republicans Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, Rep. Austin Knudsen of Culbertson and Rep. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings to get a bill in front of Gov. Steve Bullock that deregulated motor carrier laws in the state. It also eliminated a requirement that gave existing taxi services the ability to protest new companies in front of the Public Service Commission.

Senate Bill 396 revised the state’s motor carrier laws and eliminated the requirement that certain carriers acquire a certificate from the Public Service Commission.

The bill, signed into law by Bullock, also created a Class E classification for carriers that offer network carrier services, which is defined as any online-enabled app, website or software that allows carriers to pre-arrange rides.

Andrew Baker, a 24-year-old nursing student in Whitefish, said he has been driving for Uber for just over two weeks, and the job’s flexible, self-determined hours make it a good fit for academia.

Baker said he enjoys meeting new people, learning about where they hail from and offering up tips for activities in the valley.

“That’s my favorite part, meeting people from all over,” Baker said. “I drove one guy from Cancun, and have had other passengers from Pennsylvania, California, all over. It’s just cool to hear where they are coming from, why they are here and what they like about Montana.”

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