Ride-share firms gain more traction with support from PUC

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Following a meeting with Mayor Bill Peduto, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission said Monday that the agency has to change how it handles regulation for ride-share companies that have recently moved into Pittsburgh.

He's not sure what that change might look like yet, but at least one state representative said she was willing to sponsor legislation if necessary.

"These applications force us to get outside our 1960s regulations and come into 2014," said PUC chairman Robert Powelson. "We as a commission need to get out of our own way and embrace and work with these carriers."

The applications in question are Lyft and Uber, two San Francisco-based companies that enlist drivers to use their own vehicles and connect with passengers via smartphone apps. Their arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with staunch resistance from the two biggest taxi companies in the city, who urged the mayor to allow city police officers to cite ride-share drivers for violating the law.

Mr. Powelson said he has the Uber app installed on his own smartphone. 

Prior to the meeting with Mr. Powelson, the mayor said he wanted to ensure that the PUC understood that enforcing taxi regulations "is not something we consider a priority for public safety within the city."

Mr. Peduto and city Councilman Dan Gilman last week proposed amending Chapter 29 of the PUC code to create a new class of regulated transportation service providers.

The idea could look like what the California Public Utilities Commission did in September, when it created a new class of business known as a Transportation Network Companies.

State Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, said she would sponsor legislation if necessary, to ensure ride-share companies can operate legally.

"My interest is finding the best way to help move people around, to give them options and alternatives," Ms. Molchany said.

"This is a public safety issue, and it's something we need to look at in the 21st century."

Mr. Peduto said Rep. Ed Gainey had also expressed interest in sponsoring legislation, but the Lincoln-Lemington Democrat did not reply to requests for comment Monday.

The mayor added that he wanted to address the issue of decriminalizing jitneys, which have operated in the region for decades, but without regulatory approval.

Mr. Powelson said he did not talk at length about jitneys during the meeting with Mr. Peduto.

Mr. Powelson said state regulators tried to forewarn the ride-share companies before they moved into Pittsburgh, to wait until they had had a chance to address the regulatory issues.

"I don't know what the rush was, but it kind of put us in a regulatory quandary here. I want Lyft and Uber to do well, but they have to follow the ground rules."

He said he wanted to avoid a repeat of how the PUC handled the entry of low-cost carrier Megabus into the region. "We can't keep being the stodgy, out-of-date PUC," Mr. Powelson said. "But, we can't cut corners on safety, either."

Lyft did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Uber spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo said the company wasn't going to comment further until it knew more about what proposed regulation would look like.

Under the current rules, any driver who receives compensation for transportation is required to have a certificate of public convenience or they risk being fined or cited. Uber, which has operated a version of the service in Philadelphia since 2012, has such a license.

Lyft does not.

It would take a rule change by the General Assembly or a resolution by the PUC to make any changes to the current regulations.

Mr. Powelson added that he was exploring whether there was some "regulatory flexibility" in the interim, until any new PUC regulation or rule is adopted.

The taxi companies have protested the mayor's stance, noting that they have followed the rules already in place, and the new entities are illegal, and could negatively affect existing businesses.

The taxi companies have also raised concerns about public safety. On Monday, Pittsburgh Transportation Group CEO Jamie Campolongo was out of town and unavailable for comment, according to a spokesman. Pittsburgh Transportation Group is the parent company of Yellow Cab. Star Transportation Group, the parent company of Classy Cab, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

"My advice and counsel to them is: You need to innovate, and you can't expect to have exclusive, territorial rights anymore," Mr. Powelson said of the taxi companies.

"This is disruptive competition, and that leads to greater consumer choice. It's here to stay."

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly. Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. Twitter: @moriahbee.

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