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With a blast of an air horn from state Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, Uber launched its ride-share service in Billings on Friday.

At least 50 riders who’d signed up for the Uber smart phone app were at Uberbrew in downtown Billings to celebrate the rollout, which the San Francisco-based company has been planning for the past month.

Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, who took the service’s ceremonial first Billings ride around the block in Zolnikov’s white Dodge Charger, noted it was the perfect place for the celebration.

“Here we are in Uberbrew, and we’re celebrating Uber!” Hanel said to the crowd. The brewery has no direct association with the ride-sharing service.

The crowd was comprised of riders who had downloaded the app, and they received free drink tickets and appetizers at the event. Through Aug. 10, Billings riders are eligible for up to seven free rides using the app. 

Uber has already rolled out in Missoula, Great Falls, Helena, Butte and Bozeman. 

“We truly saved the best for last,” said Brian Gebhardt, general manager of Uber Montana and a Roundup native.

Gebhardt said that Uber doesn’t release driver figures, but he said the numbers in all Montana cities were comparable. He noted that Billings had a high interest in the service compared to other Montana cities, judging by inquiries online.

To use Uber, riders must download the app on their iPhone or other smartphone device. They can then use it to contact drivers, who are independent contractors that clock in through a similar app on their own phones.

Riders can contact drivers through a desktop computer, but Gebhardt said the service works best with mobile devices.

Uber drivers must be 21 years old, pass a background check and have a Montana license and insurance to cover ride-sharing. Drivers can’t have DUI or drug-related offenses, fatal accidents, a criminal history or a history of reckless driving within the past seven years.

At the Friday event, Zolnikov, a licensed Uber driver, said the service could make roads safer.

“I am a firm believer that in Montana, we do have a problem with a drinking-and-driving culture. … This was a free-market solution to getting people home,” said the Billings Republican, a supporter of a 2015 state bill that allowed Uber to come to Montana.

Minimum charge for a ride is $6.50. An Uber ride starts at a $2.50 base fee, $1.75 per mile and 25 cents a minute.

Drivers take home about 75 percent of the fees, and Uber gets the remainder, Gebhardt said.

He added that riders have benefited in other cities where Uber has launched.

“It makes the cab companies better because of the competition. They step up their game. The real winner is the consumer,” he said.

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