Uber presents testimony before Pennsylvania PUC judges

During a hearing in Pittsburgh on Monday, the local attorney for Uber instructed a witness not to answer questions about the number of rides the company has provided while under a cease-and-desist order, despite a court order compelling the company to reveal the information.

It was the most contentious point of the daylong hearing, which allowed Uber to present testimony before Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission administrative law judges. Under consideration is Uber’s application to begin permanent, experimental service in Allegheny County and other points in Pennsylvania. The application was met with protests by several dozen taxi companies, including Ambridge-based JB Taxi.

Justine Pate, an attorney representing Harrisburg-based Keystone Cab, asked witness Matthew Gore, former manager of Uber’s Pittsburgh operations, about the number of trips taken in Pennsylvania.

Karen Moury, representing Uber’s wholly owned subsidiary Raiser LLC, said the information requested was proprietary. Judge Jeffrey Watson appeared annoyed, noting that the order was issued July 31, and the company has had ample time to file a protective order of anything it considered proprietary.

"What is the valid legal basis to instruct this witness to defy a court order?" Judge Watson asked Ms. Moury. The judge said he expects the company to provide the information or present a valid legal basis for refusing to provide it when the hearing reconvenes Tuesday.

If the judges are not satisfied with the response, Uber could be considered in violation of the order, and the matter would be referred to the PUC’s bureau of investigation and enforcement for further action.

The information could be relevant, the order states, because one of the things considered in the application process is Uber’s conduct. If the judges determine that Uber continuing to operate under a cease-and-desist order constitutes unlawful operations, the judges may choose to deny the application.

Uber and its rival ride-sharing company Lyft moved into the Pittsburgh area earlier this year and have tangled with the PUC since. The companies connect drivers in their own vehicles with passengers via smartphone apps, but neither had the proper licenses to operate in Allegheny County, which led to proposed daily fines of $1,000 and cease-and-desist orders against the companies.

To comply with the emergency temporary authority, the ride-sharing companies were required to show their insurance policies provide primary coverage when drivers are conducting ride-sharing business, and that the policies meet PUC standards. The PUC issued a certificate of public convenience good for 60 days to Lyft last week. Uber’s temporary application is pending review of documents submitted, according to a PUC spokeswoman.

Much of the testimony Monday dealt with specifics of Uber’s business. David Donley, attorney for JB Taxi, asked Mr. Gore why Uber decided to continue operating in Pittsburgh, despite the cease-and-desist order.

“Just because a business model is not addressed by current regulations, just because it’s outside the scope of current regulations, doesn’t make it unlawful,” Mr. Gore said.

Michael Henry, an attorney representing several taxi companies in the eastern part of the state, asked Mr. Gore several questions about Uber’s surge pricing, which can increase fares during times of heavy demand. Mr. Henry cited part of the PUC code, which requires a public utility’s rates to be overseen by the PUC to avoid price-gouging.

Uber also presented testimony from several users of the app, and from Bryan Bashin, CEO of San Francisco-based LightHouse, which offers services to the visually impaired, who testified that ride shares were a welcome alternative to taxi service.

The judges’ ruling is not expected for several weeks, and would then need approval by the full board of PUC commissioners to be enacted.

The entire proceeding may not be valid for very long, as state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, has introduced legislation to create a new category of service for ride shares, which would be called transportation network companies. The companies would be subject to PUC oversight and insurance requirements, among other things, under Mr. Fontana’s proposed legislation.

Kim Lyons: 412-263-1241 or klyons@post-gazette.com. On Twitter: @SocialKimly. First Published August 18, 2014 12:00 AM

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