Lobbying efforts intensify as ride-sharing bill enters final stretch
January 18, 2016 12:00 AM
A Yellow Cab driver attaches one of the magnetic signs for the YellowZ cab service, which can be summoned with an online app, to a car.
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You might think the overseer of a fleet of regulated taxi cabs would be raising a stink over legislation that would grant ride-sharing companies a lasting home in Pennsylvania.
But Jamie Campolongo, president of Yellow Cab of Pittsburgh, now has a significant chunk of his business coming from customers who arrange rides via a smartphone app with drivers in their own vehicles. Mr. Campolongo diverged from some his transportation peers last year when he launched zTrip, an app that has grown to employ 100 independent contractors and accounted for about 15 percent of the company’s trips on New Year’s Eve.
That puts Yellow Cab in concert with ride-sharing behemoths Uber and Lyft in pressing lawmakers this spring to put an end to a regulatory headache that has dragged on nearly two years.
“We’re pretty comfortable with it,” Mr. Campolongo said of the bill passed by the Senate in November that would pave the way for ride-sharing companies to operate permanently. “This isn’t the best law in the world for Uber and Lyft, and it’s not the best for the taxi industry, but it’s a law we can look at, build a new business model against and get on with our lives.”
Ride-sharing companies, also called transportation network companies, have disrupted existing state regulations. When San Francisco-based Uber and Lyft moved into the Pittsburgh area in early 2014, the state Public Utility Commission fought to keep them off the streets before eventually granting both companies two-year experimental licenses.
For the period of time that Lyft was operating here without necessary approval, the PUC settled with the company for $250,000. The case against Uber is ongoing, but PUC law judges in November recommended a $50 million fine against the company for allegedly defying state authority for six months.
Mr. Campolongo said Yellow Cab’s zTrip properly went through the PUC’s approval process well before it launched in early 2015, and therefore obtained its experimental license before either Uber or Lyft.
But that also means zTrip’s license is the first to expire: By May, zTrip will need an extension of its temporary license or permanent authority to operate.
Lawmakers in the last year have introduced competing legislation to offer the state’s first set of regulations for ride-sharing operations. They have run into differences over how statewide regulations would address Philadelphia — where resentment of ride-sharing is strong and where the city’s parking authority, not the state, currently has control over the Medallion taxi cab companies.
The most promising bill, brought by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, cleared the Senate floor in November by a 48 to 2 vote and now rests in the hands of the House Consumer Affairs Committee.
It would create a separate class of regulation for ride-share vehicles, requiring drivers to be at least 21 years old; possess a valid driver’s license; maintain insurance and a valid vehicle inspection; submit to a criminal background check and driving history check; and take a driver training program.
Further, drivers would be prohibited from using a vehicle with more than 350,000 miles or one that is older than 10 model years. The driver may be disqualified after five or more violations or a criminal offense.
According to the bill summary, the Philadelphia Parking Authority would be allowed to issue its own certificate to ensure companies and drivers meet the state’s requirements. Though the agency would be allowed to “adopt reasonable regulations regarding service originating in the city,” it would not be allowed to go beyond the state’s requirements.
The Senate chose to pass Sen. Bartolotta’s bill over one introduced at around the same time by Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, which would keep intact Philadelphia’s independence to govern local transportation. Sen. Fontana’s bill hasn’t moved since it was referred to the Senate’s consumer affairs committee in February 2015, and a spokeswoman for the senator said he has no plans to bring it up, given that Sen. Bartolotta’s bill passed the Senate floor.
Sen. Fontana has accused aggressive Uber lobbyists with influencing the Senate to move forward on Sen. Bartolotta’s bill and not his.
Reached last week, state Rep. Bob Godshall, R-Montgomery, chairman of the House Consumer Affairs Committee, said he has reservations about the ride-sharing bill that should be addressed before he’d be ready to bring it up for a committee vote. For one, he would not support a bill that doesn’t have an appropriate carve-out for Philadelphia.
“I know we have to do something,” Rep. Godshall said. “With the Philadelphia dilemma, it’s a little more contentious, and we’ve got to do a little more homework ... What I have to do is come up with some kind of a compromise.”
In a written statement in response to questions, Sen. Bartolotta said her bill acknowledges “the fact that the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) should have a role in overseeing these new and innovative transportation services.”
Her bill would prohibit ride-share companies from operating in certain areas, such as taxi cab lines at airports, hotels and the Amtrak station — specifically reserving these areas for taxi cab pick-up, she said. Additionally, 1 percent of the cost of each ride in Philadelphia would go to the parking authority to fund their oversight and enforcement efforts.
Mr. Campolongo said he thinks lawmakers can resolve the “tricky” Philadelphia issue by May, and that taxi companies can’t continue to ignore the reality of ride-sharing apps on their business.
“We say to them, ‘Hey, what about Pittsburgh?’” he said. “I have a fleet of 325 cabs. You don’t think my company’s worth less today than before” Lyft and Uber moved in?
Uber has appealed to its customers and drivers to sign an online petition, which automatically generates a letter to state legislators. Currently operating in 13 Pennsylvania cities, Uber said its drivers earned $100 million in 2015 and it projects earnings to reach $2.3 billion in 2020.
“You have the opportunity to make a huge difference in my life, and in the lives of many of your constituents,” reads the letter attached to the petition, which had nearly 93,000 signatures as of Thursday. “The existing transportation status quo does not meet our needs in terms of reliability, safety, or affordability.”
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