BY TONY FARINA
Uber and Lyft have blanketed Albany with money as they push state lawmakers and the governor to legalize expansion of their ride-hailing services to upstate cities, including Buffalo, but they don’t want to operate under the same regulations that govern the taxi companies, including fingerprinting and background checks for drivers.
Uber and Lyft paid nearly $1 million (Uber, $765,268, Lyft, $190,000) to lobbying companies in just the first six months of last year in their pitch to win support for expansion of their push-button ride-hailing services, with their opponents spending a fraction of that amount. While it didn’t get done last year, this year could be different, according to all the signs.
“It is kind of like David vs. Goliath,” says Bill Yuhnke, president of Buffalo’s Liberty Yellow Cab, “and I am David, trying to fight for the little guy.”
Yuhnke, who says Liberty has 416 cabs and many more drivers who make some kind of living with the long-running company, says he’s not afraid of competition from Uber and Lyft, but he wants a level playing field, and he also wants the people to be safe, adding that without background and fingerprinting checks, there’s no way of knowing who is driving the Uber or Lyft car.
Yuhnke warns that deregulated ridesharing businesses would have a big advantage over taxi companies which must abide by background, fingerprinting, and insurance regulations that the ride-hailing companies don’t want, even though they are currently operating in New York City under the same regulations as the taxi companies.
“I know we’re not perfect and we have to get better,” says Yuhnke, “but I’m concerned not only about unfair competition from them [Uber, Lyft], but about the surge pricing they use that gouges customers during peak demand hours and the safety of our customers when, without any fingerprinting or background checks, a criminal could be driving their car.”
Buffalo city lawmakers have taken notice, and with some form of ridesharing legislation likely to win approval in Albany sometime early this year, North District Councilman Joseph Golombek has introduced legislation, as he put it, “to get ahead of the curve.”
“I think many of us are concerned about the safety of travelers, of citizens, and of taxpayers, and so my resolution would include background checks,” said Golombek. “We could have a sunset provision, like we did with the food trucks, and monitor and tweak the regulations as we follow what happens.”
Golombek’s resolution, which had been scheduled for a possible vote next Tuesday (Jan. 10) will be recommitted to the Legislation Committee after late word on Wednesday that Cuomo may have some kind of statement on the expansion debate Jan. 17th. “We’ll hold off until we hear what he has to say,” said Golombek late Wednesday, adding that the ridesharing companies have had virtually no contact with local lawmakers.
What form the expansion legislation finally takes in Albany is uncertain. It could be written to allow the upstate cities to decide what regulations would govern the ridesharing services in their communities, although Uber and Lyft strongly oppose any legislation that would include fingerprinting and background checks, especially fingerprinting.
State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer (R.-Amherst), who recently started a petition for residents to push Albany for expansion of ridesharing services to upstate cities, says expanding access to the ridesharing companies is long overdue.
Ranzenhofer said in an interview that he doesn’t see consumer safety as an issue with the ride-hailing companies and hasn’t read anywhere that the public is at risk. “I just don’t see this [safety] as a major issue,” he said.
Ranzenhofer has favored expansion of transportation network companies to operate across the state, not just in New York City, and said New York should not have regulations denying residents from using Uber or Lyft in Rochester and Buffalo as they do in other cities across the country.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo favors expansion of the ridesharing companies across the state but has not made his opinion known on the fingerprinting issue, and the final legislation could possibly leave that to local municipalities unless Uber and Lyft win the day. Ranzenhofer says he expects discussions to be ongoing and expects action on expansion legislation “sooner rather than later.”
The governor is certainly familiar with at least one Uber executive. Matthew Wing, who works for Uber in Manhattan, was Cuomo’s press secretary from June, 2013 to September, 2014 and later worked as Communications Director for the governor’s re-election campaign. Wing is married to Melissa Dina DeRosa, the governor’s chief of staff.
While Uber and Lyft claim its drivers make big dollars, critics claim the accounts do not factor in the cost of driver expenses like gas and car maintenance.
But Uber and Lyft will continue to spend big bucks on lobbyists and advertising to win approval in Albany–and already have–and it looks like they will be successful fairly soon. Unless a level playing field is somehow included in the expansion, the local taxi industry and all the local drivers could be facing extinction.
According to published reports, since the ride-hailing services began operating in Southern California three years ago, the number of arranged taxi trips has fallen by 42 percent, and total trips have dropped by 30 percent. If Uber and Lyft come in unregulated, local taxi companies and their drivers could be on the way out.
Liberty Cab’s Yuhnke said the ridesharing companies don’t want to abide by the same rules–taxes, fare regulations, insurance, background checks–that have long applied to the taxi industry.
“If they played by the same rules, I wouldn’t have any problem,” says Yuhnke, noting that Uber sets its own fares while taxi fares are closely regulated. Yuhnke fears that if Albany caves in to the ridesharing companies’ demands for no regulation, it could be the beginning of the end for the taxi business, starting with the airport taxis.
“Let’s make it fair, that’s all I ask,” says Yunke. “We’re not afraid of competition, but let’s have a level field. They have the big guys on their side and all that money to spend. But I’m fighting for the little guy, and I’m not going to give up. They are not going to roll over us without a fight, that’s for sure. And I hope folks realize that if they have everything their way, the people will lose. Unchecked drivers, surge pricing during snowstorms and at sporting events, and the little guy run out of town. I hope that doesn’t happen.”