Uber, Lyft battle heads to local level

ALBANY - The New York battle over apps like Uber and Lyft didn't end when the state Legislature approved a ride-hailing system in the state budget last month. It just shifted to the local level.
 
A provision in the state's new ride-hailing law allows all counties and four major cities -- Rochester, Yonkers, Syracuse and Buffalo -- to block companies like Uber and Lyft from picking up riders within their boundaries.
 
So far, few local governments have suggested they will go that route.
 
But the law doesn't set a deadline to enact a local ban, meaning the counties and large cities could choose to act long after the ride-hailing law takes effect in early July.
 
It's kept Uber and Lyft, the giants of the ride-hailing industry, on their toes as they shift their lobbying resources to localities in hopes of keeping as much of the state on the table as possible.
 
Josh Gold, Uber's New York policy manager, said the company has been meeting with elected leaders in the few communities that have been reported to be considering a local opt-out. That includes Westchester County, home to nearly 1 million residents.
 
"The opt-out provision that the Legislature passed and the governor signed allows for opt-out at any time," Gold said. "They can opt-out six months from now or they can opt-out two years from now. So why not give constituents what they've been clamoring for and hold our feet to the fire?"
 
Broad support
 
The ride-hailing companies are hoping their broad public support works to their advantage.
Public-opinion polls have shown strong support for ride-hailing services, which allow riders to summon a driver with their smartphone devices.
 
A Siena College poll last month showed 75 percent of New York voters somewhat or strongly agreed with the state's new ride-hailing measure, which made changes to the state's insurance laws and required the state Department of Motor Vehicles to regulate the industry.
 
The support was widespread: At least 72 percent of voters from both parties and every region of the state signaled support.
 
"Ride-sharing is one of those unique issues that unite upstaters and downstaters, Democrats and Republicans and independents, black voters and white voters, young voters and older voters," Siena pollster Steve Greenberg said.
 
There's been little movement for local bans in upstate New York, in part because most mayors of the major upstate cities helped push for ride-hailing's expansion.
 
That includes the cities of Rochester, Ithaca and Binghamton, whose mayors signed on to various efforts touting ride-hailing upstate, as did Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo.
 
Jessica Alaimo, a spokeswoman for Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, said the city does not plan on enacting a local ban.
 
Focus on suburbs
 
Since the law's passage, proponents and critics of ride-hailing have focused their efforts largely on New York City's suburbs. New York City is exempt from the new law; It regulates ride-hailing through its existing taxi laws.
 
In Westchester, Uber has put money into an advertising push, sending out mailers thanking state lawmakers for their support and airing a radio advertisement touting its efforts to recruit drivers.
 
"Have you heard? As early as July, you can drive with Uber using just your regular driver's license and personal vehicle," the ad states.
 
The target of the advertising push isn't coincidental.
 
Westchester leaders have suggested they are at least open to considering an opt-out, though a spokesman for County Executive Rob Astorino said the county is waiting for the DMV to set final rules before taking any action.
 
Dan Branda, the spokesman, said the county is "reviewing the new law at every level of county government."
 
"Our focus continues to be on passenger safety, including that vehicles will be properly insured and maintained and that drivers will be vetted with fingerprint-based background checks and drug and alcohol testing," he said in a statement.
 
Taxi industry
 
The taxi industry, which has long been a lobbying force in New York City, is urging suburban leaders to try and enact tougher background check requirements for ride-hailing drivers.
 
Critics of Uber and Lyft had pushed for a requirement that drivers receive a fingerprint background check, similar to what taxi drivers face. But while a background check was ultimately required, fingerprinting was not.
"The safety of both passengers and the public is now in the hands of the county leadership," David Beier, president of the Committee for Taxi Safety, wrote in a letter to Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. "We urge you to make the right choice for Long Island."
 
Any move to enact local restrictions would likely be challenged in court.
 
The state's ride-hailing law largely gives regulatory power over the industry to the state, with the exception of the opt-out provision and establishing any agreements with ride-hailing companies for access to publicly owned airports.
 
If a major local government were to enact a ride-hailing ban, it would likely draw an aggressive response from the ride-hailing companies, which have led public campaigns to fight restrictions in other states or major cities.
 
That includes the city of Newark, New Jersey, where Uber waged a public battle against officials who were looking to pass tougher ride-hailing regulations, threatening to pull out from the city if they were passed.
 
Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft, said he doesn't expect any localities to opt out "at this point."
 
"I think a primary reason for that is the overwhelming support for ride-sharing that exists in pretty much every corner of the state," Durbin said.
 
"There's a strong demand for ride-sharing, and policymakers recognize that and I think most of them tend to follow the wishes of their constituency."
 

© 2017 WGRZ-TV


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