Uber defiantly launches St. Louis ride-hailing service, sues regulators on antitrust claims

Markets Associated Press

Uber muscled its popular ride-hailing service into the St. Louis market Friday without the blessings of local taxicab regulators, whom Uber simultaneously sued for allegedly trying to block it and the competition it brings.

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Until the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission's 7-1 vote allowing Uber, the company had claimed St. Louis was the nation's biggest metropolitan area without the service.

But the commission's approval came with a caveat — that all would-be Uber drivers agree to be fingerprinted as part of a criminal background check that taxi drivers also must undergo. The San Francisco-based company has balked at such calls, insisting that the vetting it does for its drivers is "comprehensive" and sufficient.

Uber's antitrust lawsuit, filed in federal court, calls the commission a "cartel," blames the commission for stifling Uber's entry into the St. Louis market and seeks a temporary restraining order that allows the service to operate without any commission intrusion for two weeks.

An attorney for the commission countered Friday that "we have done everything we can do to open the door to these guys within the limits of the law, and I don't think they were ever bargaining in good faith."

Ride-hailing services including Uber use smartphone apps such as Uber's "uberX" for riders to book and pay for a private shuttling by drivers who use their own vehicles. Traditional cab drivers have complained that such services siphon off passengers and profits, dramatically cutting their ability to earn a living.

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"As Uber attempted to comply with the MTC's ever-higher hurdles to uberX's launch ... the MTC simply constructed newer, more onerous barriers to entry," the lawsuit said. "The MTC's pretext for these barriers to entry was 'public safety,' but the true purpose of the MTC's conduct was to bar entry by Uber" and other competitors to traditional taxis.

Uber also accused the "taxi-dominated commission" of acting "to protect its financial interest at the expense of the public" through anti-competitive conduct.

Commission attorney Neil Bruntrager said the panel's conduct has been within the law.

"All we've done with fingerprinting is absolutely within our jurisdiction," he told The Associated Press. "We were going to find ourselves in court anyway. I think they (Uber) rolled the dice; if they lose, they're really done."

Enforcement of any vehicle-for-hire violations will fall to St. Louis city and county police. And the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department swiftly said it has no plans to arrest Uber drivers, citing "greater concerns."

"We will leave it up to the courts to determine the legality of Uber services," the statement said.