PUC’s deaf ear: The agency fails to monitor existing taxi operators

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The introduction of ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber to Pittsburgh has put a spotlight on the state Public Utility Commission — and the light is not flattering.

The commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to grant temporary licenses for the two firms, but their accompanying actions and statements by some members — Chairman Robert Powelson in particular — make it seem that the PUC is trying to mollify its critics without changing very much.

Clearly the commissioners are aware now of anger about the state of taxicab service in Pittsburgh and the enthusiasm for the Web-based alternative ride operations. Some of them mentioned the unsatisfactory status quo when they approved the temporary permits.

At the same time, though, cease-and-desist orders against Lyft and Uber remain in effect until they meet conditions required for their temporary reprieve — including rules covering insurance, the age and mileage of vehicles and more. Lyft and Uber until very recently refused to apply for permits on that basis, so it seems the companies are the ones that altered their positions more than the PUC.

A change in state law still is essential to make sure new operators don’t slam into the same bureaucratic obstacles that have helped a near monopoly by Yellow Cab Co. to persist for decades.

Perhaps most troubling was Mr. Powelson’s stated surprise about how bad local cab service is. He said the hundreds of complaints the PUC has received since the ride shares started operating in February was “a real eye-opener for me. People are really frustrated about what they see as an inadequacy and a lack of taxicab service in the Pittsburgh area.”

It is galling to hear such professed ignorance of a condition that is as much a part of local lore as potholes and tunnel traffic.

The PUC has a responsibility not only to approve new licenses but also to ensure that existing license holders fulfill their responsibilities to the public. In this the PUC has failed.

Inspectors have had time to order rides from Lyft and Uber so they could cite drivers. Why haven’t they tried ordering a taxi from a traditional cab service in the Hill District or the South Side?

The PUC hasn’t shown interest in holding existing cab companies accountable to consumers. Pittsburghers have made it clear they won’t put up with it anymore. Is the PUC listening yet?

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