Two years on, lawmakers review impact of Uber, Lyft on Pennsylvania

Two years on, lawmakers review impact of Uber, Lyft on Pennsylvania

Author: Stephen Caruso/Thursday, June 7, 2018/Categories: News and Views, Philadelphia

An audit of ride share operations in Pennsylvania is in the works from the Public Utility Commission, a commission official revealed during a hearing Thursday.

“I have it on my desk to initiate the audit,” John Herzog, deputy chief counsel, said.

The meeting was hosted by the House Consumer Affairs Committee to look back on the two years since the passage of Act 164. That legislation gave a green light for Uber, Lyft and other transportation network companies that turned everyday citizens into chauffeurs to operate in the state.

The questions that lawmakers wanted answered were abundant throughout the meeting, from per county numbers of rides and drivers to more complicated questions on in-state versus out-of-state riders and ages and safety records of the vehicles. But immediate responses were not forthcoming and if they can be answered in time remains to be seen.

The economic impact of Uber and Lyft was touted early in the meeting. Citing especially how it makes a night on the town, whether at a country bar or on Broad Street, easier, Sami Naim, Lyft’s public policy manager for Pennsylvania, said “the benefit to businesses go up when [rideshare] goes into the market.”

A Brookings study from 2017 also confirmed his remarks, estimated that nationwide, Uber alone created $6.8 billion in consumers surplus.

But Philadelphia representatives from both parties — namely Republican Rep. Martina White and Democratic Rep. Ed Neilson — immediately starting quizzing the companies’ representatives about higher fees on rides and the quality of cars.

“We want to make sure the public is protected in all means, as you can only do as much inspection and regulations as you have the tools to do,” Neilson said later.

Around Pennsylvania, authority for regulating the ride share companies is split. For most of the state, it is up to the PUC. But within Philadelphia, the city’s parking authority regulates ride shares — and new executive director and former representative Scott Petri thinks the PPA doesn’t have enough resources to do so.

He pointed to the lowest end estimate of 20,000 cars active in the city. Meanwhile, the authority was only collecting $4 million in fees to inspect and track every single mom or retired veteran who hops in their Ford or Volvo to earn extra cash.

It meant that the authority was only inspecting 70 cars a month. At that rate, Petri said, they’d take 100 years to inspect every active ride share car in Philadelphia.

“Any good regulator will do the best they can with the money that’s available,” Petri said. “I just don’t know if it’s what the public deserves and needs.”

Petri added that in his opinion, the PUC shared similar problems in its state-level regulation. But Chairman Gladys Brown, speaking on the same panel as Petri, fully disagreed.

Still, according to the PUC’s Herzog, the ride share companies do have leeway. A private sedan that may or may not be carrying a passenger any given day is harder to track than a commercial trucking company’s eighteen-wheeler.

“To a certain extent, [ride sharing is] a self-regulated industry,” Herzog said.

To get more hard data, the PUC was pressed by lawmakers and admitted they were planning an audit, but gave no further detail on timing.

Petri said his authority was granted similar rights as the PUC to open Uber or Lyft’s books, but was stonewalled by claims of proprietary information. With that in mind, he didn’t think the commission's audit would get far.

The PPA had floated the idea earlier this year of adding a 50-cent fee onto ride hailing bills to increase their regulatory budget and fund the city’s crumbling and cash-strapped school district.

But given the authority's own checkered past, the move drew criticisms from state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

“While the PPA claims the fee will generate additional funds for the city and the School District of Philadelphia, the PPA needs to completely clean up its operations and rebuild some trust with residents before adding fees,” DePasquale said in a May statement.

DePasquale’s words were cited by the rideshare companies in opposing any new fees, but Petri said, under his leadership, the authority had already addressed most of the issues.

Besides the PPA’s legacy, advocates in Philadelphia have added that the fee might be regressive and mostly harm low income riders.

The committee also heard from representatives of the taxi and limousine industry, who called for the legislature to level the playing field between the disruptive digital giants and local companies.

Specifically, limousines asked for lawmakers to amend state law and have their operations pay a percentage fee on revenue and not a per car fee.

HB 1977 from Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R-Delaware) would implement such a change. But testifiers also expected the language would be introduced in other bills as well.

Stephen Caruso is the Harrisburg bureau chief at The PLS Reporter. Have a question, comment or tip? Email him at stephen@mypls.com.

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