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Events / Municipal government / Transportation

Lyft drivers rally to oppose ridesharing tax increase

Ahead of a vote this week, Lyft rallied riders and drivers on May 23 to try to convince D.C. Councilmembers to change their vote. City leaders say the 6 percent increase on gross receipts tax would help fund Metro.

Lyft drivers and riders said the service is an alternative to Metro. (Photo by Chris Barylick)

Ridesharing services and drivers are applying public pressure on D.C. Councilmembers as they consider a sales tax increase on rides to pay for Metro service in this year’s budget.

On the afternoon of May 23, a veritable wall of pink and white stood on the steps of City Hall. Dozens of Lyft drivers, many in pink-and-white company t-shirts, had spent the day in negotiations with members of the City Council, then held a 30- minute rally to voice their opposition to the proposed 6-percent increase on gross receipts taxes for each ride within D.C. that gained an initial approval earlier this month. As the speakers came to the podium, passers by honked, waved, or gave thumbs up to show their support.

Over the course of the day, Lyft drivers and representatives had met with various D.C. Council members, including Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, with varying degrees of success, some drivers complaining that they’d been referred over to other personnel.

“Mr. Mendelson is in his office, but he refused to see any of us and he told us to go see whoever they saw last week, so that’s where we are,” said Rochelle Woody, a driver for Lyft. “We’re on the fourth one now. I went to see [Ward 1 Councilmember] Brianne Nadeau, and I received the legislative counsel for transportation for us to talk to, Mr. Benjamin Davis.”

Nadeau’s office declined comment on the event, but said she supports the tax increase.

“Today, they weren’t very receptive. They don’t feel that the increased tax will be noticeable. They feel that all other services in the city are taxed at 6 percent and above, so they’re not very favorable towards our beliefs,” said Anthony Thomas, a Lyft driver and one of the speakers at the rally. “For example, Chairman Mendelson mentioned today that in the past, they raised taxes on health clubs. They raised the point that a few years ago, health clubs were exempt, they were at 0 percent tax and they went from 0 percent to 5 percent and that they barely went unnoticed. Our feelings towards that is that a health club membership is something that you pay once a month. So it’s easier to spread out an increase versus for Lyft rides, which if someone takes it at 1 or 2 in the morning, when the Metro buses are limited, Metro’s not running at all and buses are limited. They’re going to see that increase every time they hit the button, every time they press the ride, and that’ll add up.”

(For his part, Mendelson told WAMU he met with drivers from one ridesharing service, but doesn’t appear to be budging.

“The argument that somehow having a lower rate for pooled and a higher rate for the individual rides when we’re talking about a difference of maybe a nickel… there’s no evidence that shows that that really affects decisions by riders,” he told the station.)

Throughout the rally itself, which was organized via Facebook by Lyft, speakers made impassioned points that resonated with the crowd that had gathered outside City Hall. Among the speakers, Adrian Forsythe, a Self Advocate with the National Down Syndrome Society, pointed out that Lyft and other ridesharing services had been present in helping him both assert his independence as well as take him to medical appointments when his parents weren’t available to assist him.

Attorney Albert Elia, a member of the Federation of the Blind, pointed out that D.C.’s Metro system has been undergoing extensive maintenance and repairs over the past year, his local Metro station having been closed for six weeks at a time with six more weeks of repairs scheduled for later this year.

Finally, Lyft driver and speaker DJ Turner won the crowd over when she mentioned how ridesharing services were able to surpass Metro’s limited hours of operation, getting people home safely late at night when few other options might be available.

From City Hall’s side, Mayor Muriel Bowser has voiced her opinion on the proposed ride share tax increase, stating in a letter to Mendelson that she feels the proposed tax hike is too high, places too much of a financial burden on hotels, visitors and tourists and impacts D.C. residents who rely on ridesharing services. Bowser initially proposed a 4.75-percent increase.

“Your proposal uses the increased tax on ridesharing services to reduce the hotel sales tax increase to 15 cents and eliminate the restaurant increase, effectively subsidizing visitors to the District, tourists, and residents with disposable income,” Bowser wrote in the letter. “Additionally, by raising the per ride tax for ridesharing companies to six percent across the board, the Council disincentives the use of pooled rides and unfairly disadvantages lower-income riders who rely on pooled service. We support the progressive proposal to incentivize pooled rides that was put forth by a number of community groups and a coalition of ridesharing companies and approved by the Committee on Finance and Revenue.”

That being said, it looks like negotiations will be on the table.

“I think the conversations are going to keep going for the next couple of days,” said D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen. “I certainly think the approach of having the lower tax rate on the pool drives makes a lot of sense. I think that a good way is to have kind of a tiered system to it. But we will see what happens and what shakes out in the next couple of days.”

A final vote on the budget is expected this week.

“We’re glad that City Council had the opportunity yesterday to hear from so many allies and Lyft drivers on how this tax increase would impact their livelihood,” said Campbell Matthews, Communications Manager for Lyft. “As we continue conversations with City Council, we urge them to consider the detrimental impact of this proposed increase on the many Washingtonians who rely on Lyft and services like it for affordable and reliable transportation and a flexible way to earn.”

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