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PUC head says new Pittsburgh car services must follow rules

| Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 11:36 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Taxis wait outside of the Omni William Penn in Downtown on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Local cab companies are opposing the ability of ride-sharing companies like Lyfte to operate in Pittsburgh.

Smartphone app-based car services Uber and Lyft have been operating in a regulatory gray area since they rolled into Pittsburgh this month, so Pennsylvania officials are looking west for some guidance.

Chairman Robert Powelson of the Public Utility Commission said his staff is examining laws in California and a proposal in Colorado as they consider potential changes to Pennsylvania's rules.

“These services are going to be continuing to crop up across the state, and we need to recognize that,” Powelson said.

Uber and Lyft are two of the companies operating in a new wave of transportation services in which a consumer requests a ride through a smartphone app and is picked up by a driver, usually in his or her own vehicle.

The PUC, which oversees vehicle and driver safety for traditional taxi services, has a responsibility to ensure Uber and Lyft operate under the same standards as taxi companies, Powelson said.

“I don't have objections to them coming in and doing business, but there are regulatory rules you have to play by,” he said.

Uber has a state certificate of public convenience, butLyft does not, the PUC said.

“We've been in touch with the PA PUC and state leaders and look forward to identifying the best path forward that focuses on public safety, protects consumer choice and allows ride-sharing to grow and thrive in Pittsburgh and throughout Pennsylvania,” said Paige Thelen, spokeswoman for Lyft.

A unanimous decision by the California Public Utilities Commission in September established a new category of rules for “transportation network companies,” the first of its kind in the nation. As a result, companies such as Uber and Lyft must carry commercial liability insurance, establish a driver training program and enforce a zero-tolerance drug-and-alcohol policy. All drivers must pass a pre-employment criminal background check.

Other states have followed suit. In mid-February, a legislative committee in Oklahoma set up a new category of regulatory authority for the companies. Similar legislation has been introduced in Arizona and Colorado.

Crafting a new set of regulations would be unfair to existing taxi companies, said David Sutton, spokesman for the Taxi, Limousine and Paratransit Association. Sutton said insurance, driver training and background checks are areas where ride-sharing services don't equate to regulated taxis.

“They are essentially taxi companies, so there is no need to create a two-track system of regulation,” Sutton said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto supports Uber and Lyft, and wants the PUC to let them compete. On Monday, he met with Powelson and had “a positive discussion on how to move forward,” said Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty.

“With Mayor Peduto's leadership, it is clear that consumer choice and innovation have a voice here in Pittsburgh,” Rachel Holt, regional general manager for Uber East Coast, said in a statement through the company.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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