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Tickets for Rides: PUC cites ride-share drivers

"I think it would be political suicide to shut us down."

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When the state Public Utilities Commission announced in February that it would be cracking down on drivers working for local ride-sharing businesses, it garnered little concern from the companies, the drivers and even public officials who supported the services.

Last Tuesday, the PUC stayed true to its word and issued 23 citations to ride-sharing drivers, following through on the agency's promise when Lyft and Uber launched their services without applying for the proper licenses.

Sting operations were conducted by an undercover PUC enforcement agent who used ride-sharing apps to hail rides around the city. All of the citations were filed at district magistrate Gene Ricciardi's  office in the South Side. A clerk at that office says they were in the process of mailing out the citations late last week. They were all summary offenses for the unauthorized operation by carriers and brokers.

The citation carries a fine of between $25 and $300 and will be set by Ricciardi. PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher says that more citations are possible.

"Anyone who is providing transportation for compensation without having the proper license from the PUC is at risk for being cited," Kocher says.

Kocher says the PUC is reviewing applications for experimental service by Lyft and Uber, and one from Yellow Cab that would be called Yellow X. Yellow Cab was actually the first to apply for the new license on March 13. Lyft and Uber followed a month later. According to Yellow Cab's application, drivers would be equipped with iPads and would operate the ride-share service from their own vehicles. They would also be dispatched by Yellow Cab to help handle overflow calls during peak times. The next meeting of the PUC is May 22, but the agenda for that date has not yet been set.

Mayor Bill Peduto has come out strongly in favor of ride-sharing.  His spokesman, Tim McNulty, says that the mayor's office has not looked into the citations, but says they reinforce the need for Harrisburg to allow the new business model.

Peduto met last week with Yellow Cab CEO Jamie Campolongo, a meeting that the mayor says was productive and in which he and the Yellow Cab head agreed to work together to allow ride-sharing as long as there are common-sense safety rules, McNulty said.

As word of the citations spread, both Lyft and Uber promised to pay any driver's citation.

"We have received reports that local Lyft drivers have been cited in Pittsburgh. We are ... covering the cost of the citations and any necessary legal assistance," Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen says.

On April 25, Uber spokesperson Natalia Montalvo said that no Uber driver had yet said they were cited.

Still, the company's public-relations team went into action, sending an email to customers with the names of the PUC commissioners and their email addresses and phone numbers. The email stated "some prefer the old status quo of limited choice in transportation options: The Public Utility Commission has been ticketing our drivers in an attempt to keep Pittsburgh from moving forward."

Montalvo says that language was proactive to get everyone involved.

"At times, it takes the public voice to get officials to act in the best interests of their citizens and not special interests," Montalvo says.

Kocher says the PUC welcomes the feedback and adds, "Everyone's comments will be filed as part of the public comment in the case."

Cited drivers could not be reached for comment, but other drivers for the two companies say the reassurances offered by their employers have eased their minds.

Marc Stern, an Uber driver, reached out to local managers.

"My general manager said if I get any citation, Uber will cover it," Stern says. "They said not to worry about it and told me that the mayor is on board and the PUC commissioner is on board.

"I think it would be political suicide to shut us down."

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