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The top executive at the state's largest airport plans to have an agreement in which the ride-hailing technology company Uber will pay to operate at the airport whether or not state officials allow it.

Ron Mathieu, the executive director at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field, said he expects the agreement with Uber will be in place before a Sept. 23 hearing before the Arkansas Public Service Commission on proposed regulations governing the operation of ride-hailing technology companies in the state.

Officials at Clinton National and Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Highfill have asked the commission for an exemption to the proposal so they can charge fees to Uber and other such companies that operate on airport property. Under a new state law, Act 1050 of 2015, only the commission has the authority to charge such fees, but its proposed rules do not allow such charges.

The commission last month granted both airports their requests to intervene in the case.

The airports said federal regulations governing their operations require them to collect revenue from businesses operating on their property and require the revenue to be used for airport operations. The airports already charge taxis and shuttle services to operate on their property.

Clinton National charges taxis $2 per trip, the same amount Mathieu said Uber would be charged under its agreement.

The revenue from taxi fees accounts for a small portion of the airport's $30 million annual operating budget. Airport officials said that last year, taxis made about 33,000 trips to Clinton National, generating about $66,000.

The pending agreement with Uber won't contravene the state law, Mathieu said.

"The state law as I understand it says no one else can charge them except for the PSC, which can set their rates and so forth," he said Friday. "That doesn't mean they can't volunteer to pay, and that's what the agreement basically is.

"The goal here is to keep everything really friendly. But as we all understand, federal law, federal requirements, trump state law."

If the commission cannot adopt regulations allowing the airports to charge Uber and other ride-hailing companies, Mathieu said the airport would seek a remedy in the next legislative session.

"It's a two-pronged approach," he said. "Even if the PSC does not grant us the exception we are seeking -- if they were to say, for instance, your relief lies with the Legislature at the next session -- we certainly have to accept that, but we will still work with Uber and will still require them to pay to operate out here.

"I think Uber understands that they would have to do that. At that point, we would go to the Legislature in the next session and seek the exemption to be in compliance with federal law."

Mathieu said federal compliance is a significant issue for airports, which rely on Federal Aviation Administration grants for aviation-related improvements.

As an example, he pointed to a $16 million project to improve several taxiways and part of the apron on the general aviation side of the airport. It is largely funded by a discretionary grant from the FAA. Such money wouldn't be available to the airport if it wasn't complying with the agency's regulations.

"Those things come into question when you are not in good standing and not in compliance with federal law," Mathieu said. "So what would you rather have from a state perspective? Do you want our $16 million we are getting to do this work and have an economic impact or do you not want to charge $2?

"No one is trying to circumvent anybody, no one is trying to give anybody a hard time, we just need to point out: here are issues we have under federal law we have to abide by, and there is some very significant consequences to us if we don't abide by them."

The airport also would be in a difficult position if it were charging taxis and other transportation companies using the airport but not ride-hailing technology companies, he said.

"But as long as we are kept in compliance and Uber is paying, and then we don't have other entities saying, 'Hey, if they're not paying, we're not paying' -- we don't get into that chaos situation -- then we're going to be fine and keep it friendly and go to the Legislature the next time around," Mathieu said. "All we're asking for is some help so we can stay compliant and make sure that continues."

The proposed Public Service Commission rules largely mirror Act 1050, which became law in July and delegates the rule-making to the commission.

The new law and rules require ride-hailing companies to pay an annual fee of $15,000 to the commission and establish requirements for drivers. Independent verification that the drivers meet the requirements would happen only if the commission investigates complaints or through an annual audit of company records.

Act 1050 requires that state and national criminal-background checks be conducted on potential drivers, as well as a driving history report. A company cannot accept a driver if the driver has been convicted in the past seven years of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol; fraud; a sexual offense; using a motor vehicle to commit a felony; a crime involving property damage; theft; acts of violence; or acts of terror.

Drivers also can't be listed on the national sex-offender registry or have had more than three moving traffic violations or more than one major traffic violation within the past three years.

Metro on 09/13/2015

Print Headline: LR airport aims for Uber to pay

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