Back off, PUC: The agency either supports ride-share or not

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The state Public Utility Commission is sending mixed messages about local ride-share services.

Two months ago — after Lyft and Uber began operating their Internet-based companies in Pittsburgh — PUC Chairman Robert Powelson agreed with Mayor Bill Peduto that the state agency needed to revise its draconian rules and start working with the alternatives to traditional taxi services.

That was welcome news from a bureaucracy that long has favored the near-monopoly of Pittsburgh Yellow Cab Co., a status quo that has meant erratic and lackadaisical service for customers. But then the PUC’s field agent went on a citation-issuing spree, tagging 23 ride-share drivers between March 31 and April 21.

That enforcement calls the agency’s sincerity into question.

The PUC says its regulations provide for “experimental service” like that offered by Lyft and Uber, but its spokeswoman said the two firms didn’t initially apply for those licenses. They have now, Lyft on April 3 and Uber on April 14, and their applications are in a 30-day public comment period required before permits can be issued. Even Yellow Cab’s parent firm has applied for one of the experimental licenses.

Despite the pending applications, the PUC maintains that it has an obligation to continue issuing citations against unlicensed operators because it otherwise could be held liable in an accident.

We’re not persuaded that aggressively pursuing violators is the right way to go now, and it contradicts what Mr. Powelson signaled would be a change in direction.

State law has given traditional firms an advantage for too long, and multiple citations against Lyft and Uber drivers are just another way to push the new competitors out and shore up Yellow Cab’s hold on the local market.

A change in the law is the only way to settle this issue for good. In the meantime, the PUC needs to ease up on enforcing the letter of the law while ignoring the stated intentions of PUC leadership.

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