What Pat Quinn Has to Do With Uber Expansion

The Illinois governor's veto could help the car service app's Chicago ambitions

Uber's goal to expand its Midwest branch by 500 employees within the next two years depends upon the approval of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

The popular ride-sharing start-up urged Chicagoans to mobilize against legislation recently passed by the Illinois state Senate that would regulate Uber's growing business here amid taxi industry concerns. The bill, dubbed HD 4075, awaits Quinn's signature, and Uber would really, really like the governor to veto it.

Uber's Chicago headquarters tweeted a breathlessly-worded petition on Thursday soliciting signatures to "save UberX," the cheapest option available on the car service app and also one of the most controversial.

In April, NBC Chicago went undercover to hire several UberX drivers only to discover via background check a history of traffic violations.

"The bill protects taxi special interests working to stifle competition and protect their monopoly," the petition contends. "HB 4075 damages consumer choice, safety, economic development, and the ability of municipalities to regulate transportation services in a way that meets their residents’ needs."

Meanwhile, Andrew Macdonald, Uber's Midwest manager, tells Crain's Chicago Business, "We'd still add jobs" if Quinn signs the bill but "to what extent, we don't know."

Uber has chosen the Windy City to be one of three regional hubs alongside Washington and San Francisco, where the company was founded. Back in May, City Hall approved a controversial plan by Mayor Rahm Emanuel -- whose super-agent brother is among the app's most powerful investors -- that goes into effect at the end of the summer and bars ride-sharing businesses from picking up passengers at local airports and McCormick Place.

The loophole: If city transportation authorities OK O'Hare and Midway as Uber zones, then those floodgates will bust open, resulting in an even greater contingent of angry taxicab drivers fearful of losing customers to smartphone-friendly competitors.

Defending the ordnance against allegations that it's too soft on Uber-disruptors, Emanuel said: "There’s a criminal background check that didn’t exist before. There's a vehicle inspection that didn’t exist before. There's training required that didn’t exist before. Those are a step in the right direction."

(Earlier this week, Uber made headlines in New York City by cutting UberX prices by 20 percent for a limited time to offer a money-saving alternative to the yellow cab.)

Now, HD 4075, which cleared the Senate on June 18, would impose stricter regulations upon Uber and its ilk by requiring drivers to earn a chauffer's license if they log more than 18 hours per week. It's being sponsored by Chicago Democrat Mike Zalewski, who told Crain's: "I applaud Uber for wanting to grow its business in Chicago. There is no reason why that cannot happen with this law in place to put customer safety first, as supported by a strong bi-partisan majority of the Illinois House and Senate. I hope the governor will sign it into law soon."

Lobbying in Uber's favor: Jack Lavin, who formerly served as Quinn's chief of staff.

Bracing for the worst, Macdonald says if Illinois "slams the brakes on .. (w)e'll have to keep our eyes on the situation."

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