Cab competition: The PUC chairman seeks a road to the future

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When the chairman of the Public Utility Commission says the state agency can’t remain stuck under 1960s-era regulation, it’s news worth celebrating.

Robert Powelson made the comment after a closed-door meeting Monday with Mayor Bill Peduto over how to deal with new, Internet-based ride-share companies entering a market long dominated by near-monopoly taxi cab operators.

The services Lyft and Uber, already running in many cities, started offering rides in Pittsburgh this month, triggering a fight with the city’s large cab companies, Pittsburgh Transportation Group and Star Transportation Group. The traditional providers seem to have the law on their side, but Mr. Peduto brushed off their attempt to have city police prop up their interests with beefed-up enforcement of PUC regulations.

The mayor, a dissatisfied cab customer himself, said he wants to see the new services succeed by offering real competition in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Powelson said as much, too, telling the Post-Gazette that the PUC needs “to get out of our own way and embrace and work with these carriers.” He said the commission is eager to avoid mishandling the situation as it did when the low-cost carrier Megabus came into the state. “We can’t keep being the stodgy, out-of-date PUC.”

Mr. Powelson’s comments alone, however, don’t settle the matter.

It is not clear whether the PUC — which regulates taxis, buses and other utilities — can make administrative changes to accommodate the new carriers or whether legislative action is needed.

Pittsburgh Councilman Dan Gilman suggested amending the PUC code to create a new class of providers akin to California’s Transportation Network Companies. State Rep. Erin Molchany, a Mount Washington Democrat, said she’s willing to sponsor a bill to resolve the issue.

If nothing more, Mr. Powelson can advance this important discussion at the PUC. He is just one of five votes on the panel, but he undoubtedly has influence as its chairman. In addition, he can rely on the PUC’s own mission statement, which says that, in addition to balancing the needs of consumers and utilities as well as ensuring safety and reasonable rates, it “fosters new technologies and competitive markets.”

That sounds like just what Lyft and Uber have in mind.


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