An on-demand shuttle van service that was to debut in central Buckhead in January has been delayed – and possibly endangered – by legal liability questions.

The service, involving four free-roaming vans hailed on Uber-style cellphone apps, would be operated by a company called Via in a contract with the Buckhead Community Improvement District. It is intended to replace the current fixed-route “buc” shuttle bus service. The Via program was approved by the BCID board earlier this year, with one member praising it as a “revolutionary” service that could be imitated metro-wide.

A Via-operated on-demand shuttle van in Arlington, Texas, as shown in a promotional video.

But in contract negotiations, the BCID ran into the question of who would be on the hook for accidents or other liability problems. Via is a technology company that would not own any of the vehicles and would not directly employ the drivers. That could leave the BCID liable as the operator, and Via was unwilling to cover it.

“Long story short, we were unable to get them to agree to indemnify the CID appropriately for this type of service,” said BCID Executive Director Jim Durrett at the board’s Nov. 27 meeting.

BCID board chair Thad Ellis of Cousins Properties said the service is “pioneering,” but added that is “all the more reason it’s non-negotiable” to have indemnification. The core question on liability from the BCID, he said, was, “Why are we the guinea pigs?”

Via operates in various cities around the nation and world. Lynn Rainey, the BCID board’s attorney, said the company claimed it has never provided indemnification to governmental partners elsewhere. He said it is hard to believe the liability issue never came up before, but that if governments did run the service without indemnification, “shame on them.”

The BCID won’t accept anything short of full indemnification, said Durrett. The BCID threatened to withdraw from the agreement, and negotiations with Via are now continuing, he said.

“It appears that we do have an opportunity to negotiate a fair and satisfactory contract to be determined… But it’s going to take us a while to get there,” he said.

To allow negotiation time, the board agreed to extend the existing contract with “buc” shuttle operator Buckhead Coach through March.

“So April 1, [the CID] would be in a position to rock and roll?” asked board treasurer Herbert Ames of EDENS. Durrett knocked on the wooden tabletop in response.

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