Citing public safety, judges grant PUC's request for ride-share cease-and-desist orders



Ruling that the threat to public safety was immediate, a two-judge panel Tuesday granted emergency cease-and-desist orders against ride-share companies Lyft and Uber.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement requested the orders, saying that allowing the ride-share companies to operate without state oversight or certification was a serious threat to public safety.

The administrative law judges agreed.

“We are not blind or deaf to the public opinion, at least in the Pittsburgh area, that the transportation needs of many individuals are not adequately met by currently certificated carriers,” the judges wrote in their decision. “However, the Commission is charged with a higher duty than just the public convenience. The Commission is also charged with ensuring the public safety.”

The orders require both companies to stop operating immediately in Pennsylvania.

The judges based their decision on two hearings conducted last week in Pittsburgh, during which one witness testified. That witness, PUC enforcement officer Charles Bowser, described how he downloaded the ride-sharing smartphone apps, took rides and paid for the transportation.

Mr. Bowser issued 23 citations to Lyft and Uber drivers in March and April for operating in Pittsburgh without certificates of public convenience. Those cases are pending a hearing before a local district justice.

But those enforcement actions, and proposed daily fines of $1,000 per day for each company, did not serve as a deterrent to either one — both of which continue to operate locally, which prompted the emergency petitions.

According to the PUC code, any motor carrier that provides transportation for compensation must have a certificate of public convenience. Lyft and Uber have applications pending before the PUC to establish “experimental” service in Pennsylvania, but they began operating well before these applications were filed, Mr. Bowser testified. The applications are pending before the commission. If eventually they are approved, the cease-and-desist orders would be nullified, said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

In order to receive the emergency interim relief order, the PUC had to prove four points: that its right to “relief” was clear, that the need for relief was immediate, that injury would be irreparable if relief were not granted and that the relief was not “injurious to the public interest.”

“We conclude that [the investigation and enforcement bureau] has established by a preponderance of the evidence that the harm would be irreparable if the relief requested is not granted,” the judges wrote in their order against Uber. The order against Lyft contains similar language.

The judges also addressed the matter of the companies failing to abide by state rules for motor carriers.

“Because Lyft has chosen to attempt to avoid Commission jurisdiction and has failed to comply with the law, the Commission and the public it serves have been deprived of the ability to protect the [traveling] public,” the judges wrote in the decision against Lyft.

Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen issued a statement from the company that appeared to indicate it would not stop operating in Pittsburgh:

“Today’s decision will make it harder for the people of Pittsburgh to access safe, affordable and modern transportation options. The city’s residents enthusiastically welcomed Lyft’s arrival in February; passengers have come to rely on Lyft for community-powered rides, and Lyft drivers enjoy the economic opportunity that it provides. We remain committed to finding a path forward for ride sharing in Pennsylvania and are working with elected officials to ensure that consumers continue to have access to peer-to-peer transportation.”

​In an email, Uber spokesperson Taylor Bennett called the decision “baffling” and said it could lead to an “unsafe environment” for the upcoming Independence Day holiday.

“After finding Uber’s presence in Seattle cut down DUIs by 10 percent, the Pennsylvania ALJ is deciding … to cast favor on an industry well-known for poor reliability in Pittsburgh,” the email reads.

Ms. Bennett’s email indicates Uber has no plans to stop operating:

“While we plan to continue our commitment to reliable and safe service in Pennsylvania, we look forward to continuing to work with the PUC to find a permanent home for [ride sharing] in Pennsylvania.”

“This is a disappointing ruling, but the mayor remains committed to innovation and providing safe and popular transit options for Pittsburgh,” said Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto.

The mayor has been an outspoken supporter of ride sharing in Pittsburgh and has said he has used them for transportation. The mayor sent a letter to the leadership of the PUC to express his “disappointment” after it requested the cease-and-desist orders.

The companies have seven days to file briefs to the PUC, but the orders remain in effect unless the commissioners take action to overturn them. If the commission takes no action on any briefs filed within 30 days, the order remains in effect, and the companies would have to appeal the order to Commonwealth Court to have it overturned.

Read the order against Lyft below or click here to download the full document.

 

 

Read the order against Uber below or click here to download the full document.

 

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1241. First Published July 1, 2014 4:10 PM

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