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Uber launches in Portland, Oregon despite being completely illegal there

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Local officials warn of massive fines for the company and drivers

Uber has a remarkably rich history of upsetting local city transportation officials by setting up shop before laws and regulations have been ironed out. And that's just what's happening tonight in Portland, Oregon where Uber apparently surprised everyone by launching its ridesharing service without the approval of the city's transportation bureau.

"Apparently, they believe they're gods."

If caught, fines for both Uber and its drivers are steep, running $1,500 for the company (for the first offense) and up to $2,250 for the driver, with those fines going up to $5,000 for additional violations. And the city says it's on the lookout. "They think they can just come in here and flagrantly violate the law?" Portland's transportation commissioner Steve Novick told The Oregonian. "This is really amazing. Apparently, they believe they're gods." An Uber spokeswoman said the company plans to support drivers there "every step of the way." It's currently unclear if that means Uber plans to foot the bill for those fines.

Uber's entrance to the city is complicated due to Portland's proximity to neighboring cities where Uber is allowed, including right across the bridge to Vancouver, Washington. Drivers in those places can pick people up and take them into Portland within minutes, meaning whatever return trip to those areas requires riding without a paid passenger on the way back.

In a press release condemning the move, Novick says the city is still in the process of reevaluating its taxi laws to allow companies like Uber and Lyft to operate. Like just about every other city that's had issues, the concern centers on insurance and background checks on drivers. Traditional taxi companies require drivers to have certain rates of commercial insurance and annual background checks, whereas there's been less of a guarantee among the various transportation companies. Novick notes that he invited Uber and Lyft to submit changes to existing laws and regulations, but that "Uber has chosen instead to break the law."

Uber's been under close scrutiny from regulators in much of the US, Europe, and more recently in Southeast Asia. Its business has also been under a microscope for aggressively going after competitors (including Lyft), promising its drivers riches, and for executive gaffes. Just yesterday Uber referred to those maladies as "growing pains" on its way to becoming a larger company thanks to another $1.2 billion in funding.