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Uber, Lyft get tentative PUC permission to operate in Allegheny County

| Thursday, July 24, 2014, 11:11 a.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Ronando Long stands next to his Honda Accord along the Boulevard of the Allies, Friday, July 11, 2014. Long is an Uber driver.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Lyft driver Matt Flavin (left), 30, of Garfield, shares a laugh with Lyft driver Chris Norris, 32, of the Strip District, and Lyft passenger Elysa Sanchez (right), 25, of Point Breeze, after attending a press conference outside the City County Building in Downtown with local elected officials speaking on the future of ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft in Pennsylvania on Thursday, July 10, 2014. Sanchez says she uses the service to supplement the limited bus service times and locations.

Drivers for ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft can operate in Allegheny County without fear of citations for at least two months, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ruled on Thursday.

Several commissioners scolded the companies, through which users hail rides with a smartphone app, for operating for months without PUC approval, but voted 5-0 to allow them to operate for 60 days. Long-term permits are pending with the regulatory agency.

“I'm going to go back to some of the past sins of these entities, where you were advised back in March to follow certain protocols established by the commission and you opted not to. Today, you're getting a chance to take the mid-term exam over, by the five of us agreeing unanimously to support this application,” PUC Chairman Robert Powelson told the companies.

“I don't expect any thank-you notes from these entities. What I expect you to do is work with our Bureau of Transportation Safety and get yourself compliant so you can do business here.”

The commission approval is contingent upon several conditions:

• Vehicles must follow PUC safety standards that preclude a driver from using a vehicle more than eight years old or with more than 100,000 miles;

• The vehicles must be properly marked with a placard;

• Drivers must have valid driver's licenses and be 21 or older, and carriers must conduct criminal-history checks on drivers;

• The companies' insurance policies must provide primary coverage when drivers are working and meet PUC coverage standards;

• Companies must direct drivers to notify their own insurers in writing of their intent to drive for a ride-share service.

PUC officers will enforce the conditions, the commission said. Until the conditions are met in writing, a cease-and-desist order remains in effect.

A spokeswoman for Lyft said her company would comply with the requirements. An Uber spokesman said that company is reviewing them.

“The PUC has recognized that regulations can and should be modernized to allow innovative industries to thrive, while maintaining the highest level of public safety,” Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said.

“Common sense prevailed, and we applaud the PUC for recognizing the critical need for safe, reliable transportation options in Pittsburgh,” Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett said.

Commissioners emphasized their approval is temporary and that legislative action likely is needed for permanent approval. A bill pending in Harrisburg would amend regulations to allow ride-sharing services, but the full Legislature doesn't return until September and has only one session day scheduled after October.

“Now, it's about moving forward and trying to get legislation passed,” said Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, a primary sponsor of the bill. “To get it through in September and October, it will need to be fast-tracked.”

Less clear is the fate of 32 citations issued to Lyft and Uber drivers by a PUC enforcement officer for operating illegally. The PUC proposed fines of $1,000 for each day of those operations. Agency spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said officials haven't decided whether to withdraw the citations.

The drivers are on track for hearings before a magistrate. One driver reached by phone would not comment.

Lyft and Uber drew the ire of traditional taxi companies who want their competition to be subject to rules and regulations they must follow.

Jamie Campolongo, president of Yellow Cab, did not return a call. His company started an app-based system called Yellow Z, which awaits PUC approval.

“(The approval) is fine. We love competition, but there has to be a level playing field,” said Chuck Half, manager of projects and productivity for VETaxi, owned by Star Transportation. “They have to have the same (fees and taxes) on par with ours.”

Uber and Lyft, based in San Francisco, have tangled with regulators in more than a dozen cities. In most cases, the companies continue operating despite orders to cease, citations and fines.

Among their boosters are zealous drivers and riders, and politicians such as Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.

“I want to thank the Public Utility Commission for clearing the way for ride-sharing services to operate,” said Peduto, who vowed to “keep working with the PUC and others in Harrisburg to allow for them permanently.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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