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Local, state officials urge PUC to give temporary permits to Uber, Lyft

| Thursday, July 10, 2014, 11:03 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Lyft driver Matt Flavin (left), 30, of Garfield sports the company's signature pink mustache alongside his wife, Lara, 24, their daughter, Razlyn, 1, and fellow Lyft supporter Ellie Gordon (right), 28, of Squirrel Hill. They were listening to elected officials speak on the future of the ride-sharing companies in Pennsylvania at a news conference outside the City County Building, Downtown, on Thursday, July 10, 2014.

Local political leaders and state legislators on Thursday asked the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to grant temporary permits allowing ride-share companies Uber and Lyft to operate in the Pittsburgh area until lawmakers adopt permanent regulations.

“There is a demand for these types of services. ... I urge the PUC to expedite their consideration,” Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, said at a rally at the City-County Building, Downtown, as dozens of Uber and Lyft supporters cheered.

Fontana introduced a bill this week to classify the companies as transportation network companies and subject them to regulations, including provisions requiring them to establish driver-training programs, conduct background checks on drivers, maintain commercial liability insurance of at least $1 million per incident and annually inspect vehicles.

Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mt. Washington, proposed a similar measure in the House.

Lawmakers can't act on the proposed regulatory changes until they return from summer recess in mid-September.

“The PUC has maintained since March that a legislative solution for transportation network companies is the best answer for Pennsylvania,” spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. “But we have an obligation to apply the law as it currently exists.”

Kocher said only Uber applied for emergency authority to operate, through its subsidiary Raiser PA. She said commissioners could approve the request before their July 24 meeting through an informal survey of members but said the PUC is awaiting further information from Uber before proceeding.

“We're not anti-regulation,” said David Barmore, a Washington-based public policy specialist at Uber Technologies.

Ride-share companies, which connect passengers and drivers through Internet applications, have endured resistance from legislators, regulators and established taxi and limo companies in many cities where they introduced service. The companies argue they aren't traditional transportation companies because they don't maintain vehicle fleets or count drivers as employees.

The PUC cited 22 drivers in Pittsburgh, including 11 apiece from Uber and Lyft, for driving without its permission and issued proposed fines against the San Francisco-based companies of $130,000 and $95,000, respectively.

The companies ignored cease-and-desist orders from the PUC, which regulates taxi and limo companies.

“Other progressive cities moving forward are doing this. We need to do this, too,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said, likening the controversy to blowback from some local officials in the 1980s over allowing people to fill their own gas tanks, because of a perceived health hazard. “It's protectionism. It protects things from moving forward.”

Chuck Half, a manager at Pittsburgh's VETaxi, said the PUC assesses parent company Star Transportation Group about $50,000 a year to operate. It also pays other fees and taxes.

“Lack of a level playing field is the government picking winners and losers by rewarding some and penalizing others,” Half said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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