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Taxi services fret as Pittsburgh airport talks with Uber near end

| Thursday, April 9, 2015, 10:54 p.m.
The Uber app displays on a smartphone.
The Uber app displays on a smartphone.

Pittsburgh airport officials are working on a deal that would let ride share companies ferry passengers from the facility, but traditional taxi companies fear that could put them at a disadvantage.

Jim Gill, chief operating officer at the Allegheny County Airport Authority, declined to share details of the forthcoming arrangement or offer a time line, but said negotiations with ride share company Uber are in the final phase.

“We think it is something the customer is looking for, that they want to use,” he said.

During the winter, airport security issued tickets to Uber drivers picking up passengers curbside. The facility's rules allow any driver to drop off travelers. But commercial services such as taxis, limos and shuttles must have a permit and pay trip fees to pick up passengers and charge fares.

Ride sharing services Uber and Lyft started in Pittsburgh last year and subsequently received approval to operate from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The companies offer rides from drivers in their own vehicles, a business model that presents insurance and tracking issues different from traditional fleets, Gill said. Taxis at the airport are required to install transponders for fee and security purposes, a system that would not work on privately owned vehicles, he said.

Jamie Campolongo, president of the Pittsburgh Transportation Group, suspects the arrangement will put his taxi service, Yellow Cab, at a competitive disadvantage. His prices are subject to approval from the PUC, but Uber rates can “surge” based on demand and drop later.

An average fare from the airport to the city center is about $37, he said.

“They could, if they wanted, lower their prices and run me out of business,” he said. “We won't be able to discount, and then they'll be able to discount. If you don't balance that piece, I think it could get really out of whack.”

Taylor Bennett, spokesman with Uber, offered a statement: “We're continuing to work with airport officials and look forward to developing a long-term solution that helps improve operations and ensures travelers have access to safe, reliable rides.”

Nationwide, a few dozen airports have figured out how to handle regulating the ride share companies.

John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., established a class of permit for transportation network companies, announced in late March. Officials at the Louisville Regional Airport Authority are finalizing an arrangement.

In Philadelphia, ride sharing is banned citywide, but Uber operates an app-based “black car” limo service at the airport, a spokeswoman said.

Janice Griffith, a ride-share policy expert and law professor at Boston's Suffolk University, said because airports are different jurisdictions from municipalities, they are subject to their own rules.

“Different government jurisdictions are probably going to try to find some way to make sure it operates, from their perspective, safely,” she said. “And they are still in the experimental stage of figuring out exactly what those regulations should be.”

Chris Koopman, a research fellow with the market-oriented think tank Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said the airport regulations show how technology outpaces regulation. Playing catch-up, he said, won't suffice.

“What looks like a short-term workaround or a regulatory fix today will likely lead to more problems in the future as innovation and entrepreneurs continue to push technology changes in ways regulators never imagined,” Koopman said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511.

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