Manitoba·Analysis

They booked a ride with Uber for the mayor. But no one knows who pays the tab

On the surface, enabling Winnipeg regulate Uber was a gift for Brian Bowman. But the city may get stuck with the tab.

Political gift from province may come with a hidden pricetag, as it's unclear who will pay for regulation now

The province plans to give Winnipeg the power to regulate Uber and cabs. It's unclear whether it will also give the city the $750,000 budget it currently uses for this task. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

When he was running to become Winnipeg's mayor, Brian Bowman made a few promises that in retrospect seem a little fanciful.​

Completing six rapid-transit corridors by 2030 appears to be impossible. Even if the money materializes, the planning and construction will take longer.

Reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians is certainly possible, but has proven to be more complicated than simply tearing up some concrete.

Even the seemingly mundane task of creating a dog park downtown has thus far eluded the City of Winnipeg.

After a couple of years in office, Bowman has followed the lead of all more experienced mayors and ratcheted down the expectations.

During his State of the City speech in February, he promised to help bring Uber or another ride-booking service to Winnipeg. But he offered no specifics in terms of that help, which is fitting considering the city has no jurisdiction over the vehicle-for-hire industry.

This will change, however, in less than a year, when newly announced provincial legislation governing the likes of Uber is slated to take effect.

On Monday, Indigenous and Municipal Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke tabled a bill that will dissolve the provincial Taxicab Board and make the city responsible for licensing and regulating both taxis and services like Uber.

On the surface, this was a gift for Bowman, who called the prospect of bringing Uber-like services to Winnipeg "an opportunity" to improve customer service.

Taxicab Board chair Randy Williams also called it "a great idea," as Winnipeg is the only municipality that lets some other organization license its cabs.

"If the City of Brandon can do it, if the City of Steinbach can do it, the City of Winnipeg can do it," Williams said.

That's true. But there are a lot more cabs in Winnipeg, where it costs a lot more to license and regulate the industry.

This fiscal year, the province will spend $750,000 on the taxicab board. That's spare change to the province, but it represents a significant sum to the city, which is struggling to fund the services it already has.

"I think it's ridiculous that they're dumping this on the City of Winnipeg," said Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie, the last city councillor to sit on the taxicab board. He quit the board on March 1 to protest its accommodation of Uber.

"This is just very problematic in a time when financially we're told we have to cut in order to pay off and balance our budgets."

It actually isn't clear if the province plans to download the cost of regulating and licensing taxis on to Winnipeg. But if the province intends to slide the $750,000 taxicab-board budget over to the city, Minister Clarke is being awfully tight-lipped about the funding.

"There is the opportunity for costs to be covered by the licensing," she said when asked whether Winnipeg will receive any provincial support.

Bowman said he intends to find out what the province means when it says Winnipeg is now responsible for taxis, Uber or any other player in the vehicle-for-hire industry.

"We need to review the details and we will. We'll be in a better position to answer that in the coming days and weeks," the mayor said.

This is not just about money. Winnipeg's new regulatory responsibilities will mean hiring new people with the expertise to determine the size and scale of the taxi industry, develop regulations and enforce them, as well as preside over public hearings.

Winnipeg is underserved by taxis, according to a study commissioned by the soon-to-be-dissolved provincial Taxicab Board. (CBC)
Expanding the duties of Winnipeg's public service doesn't jibe with Bowman's political philosophy. He frequently talks about the need for the city to be more innovative and efficient. Starting a brand-new regulatory regime doesn't sound particularly efficient or innovative.

And make no mistake, the city will have to hire people to regulate taxis and services such as Uber.

"Our city administration and our transportation area, they have no idea of what are the requirements to deal with the taxicab industry," Eadie said.

His comments prompted the mayor to wonder why the councillor quit the taxicab board.

"If he wanted to have a direct say, he could have remained on the board," Bowman said with a laugh.

A study commissioned by the board makes it very clear Winnipeg is underserved by its existing fleet of taxis. The prospect of more competition is immensely popular among pretty much everyone but taxi drivers.

So it was a gift for the mayor when the province told him yes, Winnipeg can go ahead and bring Uber to city. But it was a gift only in the political sense.

Genuine gifts don't come with pricetags, hidden or otherwise.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.

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