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Pennsylvania PUC officer finds Lyft, Uber drivers easy to pursue in Pittsburgh

| Thursday, April 24, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

The same smartphone technology making it easy to summon ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber made it simple for an undercover officer to catch their drivers and issue them citations for operating without licenses.

A compliance officer for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission issued 23 tickets to Lyft and Uber drivers for operating without state approval during the past month. The sting didn't require much detective work.

“When you request a ride, you get the name of the driver and the license plate number,” said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher. “They use that information in writing the summons.”

Posing as a customer, the PUC officer used his smartphone to get a ride and paid with a credit card. The officer didn't tell the driver that he was under cover, opting to mail the citation later, Kocher said.

The officer filed the citations — classified as summary offenses — at District Judge Gene Ricciardi's office on the South Side. Fines can range from $25 to $300, with additional court costs at the discretion of a judge.

The officer cited the drivers between March 31 and April 21 by taking a variety of rides, including pickups at Wyndham Grand Hotel in Downtown; Rivers Casino on the North Shore; and Station Square and other parts of the South Side.

Lyft and Uber supply rides, with drivers using their own cars based on real-time requests sent from an app on a customer's smartphone. Lyft drivers attach a pink moustache to their grill for identification. The PUC regulates taxi services. Traditional cab companies complained that Lyft and Uber don't have state licenses to operate.

Some drivers were surprised to learn of the citations because they haven't arrived yet in the mail.

Lyft driver Bunny Van Meter, 33, of Overbrook said the citation isn't fair.

“People should know what the PUC is doing because it's shady,” Van Meter said. “There's a monopoly on transportation, and we're filling in the gaps.”

Van Meter was cited for picking up the undercover officer on April 16 at Rivers Casino and dropping him off at the Wyndham Grand. The officer took six other rides on the same day, records show.

The citations are the first in the state against drivers for those companies, Kocher said. Lyft and Uber have license applications pending with the PUC.

A Lyft spokeswoman said the company would cover the cost of the fines.

Uber spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo didn't respond to questions but said in a statement that the company has seen overwhelming demand from riders and drivers.

“Both Mayor (Bill) Peduto and PUC Chairman (Robert) Powelson have expressed support for innovative transportation solutions that deliver more choices for consumers and more opportunities for drivers,” the statement said, in part.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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