Is this finally the year for ride-hailing in upstate New York?
It’s a common complaint around Albany. When Amtrak passengers arrive at the Albany-Rensselaer train station, some walk out to grab a cab – only to find they must share a ride with several other passengers, with no alternatives.
“One of the things I hear on ridesharing is that people come up on the train and they have to take a taxi,” said Jim Seward, chairman of the state Senate Insurance Committee. “I’ve heard so many terrible stories about that. At the train station they load up the cars.”
While Uber launched in New York City in 2011, state insurance law doesn’t allow ride-hailing services in upstate. Lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly have failed to reach an agreement on authorizing legislation in recent years, but proponents now see real hope of passage.
In his State of the State addresses this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the first time included a proposal to expand ride-hailing services upstate, saying it would spur economic growth, provide a “cost-effective” transportation option and bring “transportation into the 21st century.”
Lawmakers believe Cuomo’s endorsement of the expansion – and its strong support among voters – will be enough to cross the finish line this session. A late January Siena College poll found 77 percent of respondents supported expanding ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, to operate across the state. Only 15 percent were opposed.
Like traditional taxicabs, ride-hailing operators require insurance protection in case of an accident or death. The insurance requirement is higher when a car has a passenger in it or a driver is en route to pick up a passenger.
A late January Siena College poll found 77 percent of respondents supported expanding ride-hailing services to operate across the state. Only 15 percent were opposed.
Last year, state Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats were unable to agree on insurance requirements for when an auto accident results in the injury or death of a passenger. The state Senate proposed a minimum of $1 million of coverage, but in the final days of the 2016 session the Assembly raised that to $1.5 million. In the end, the legislation stalled.
This year, a similar state Senate bill stipulates an insurance minimum of $1 million. The Assembly’s one-house budget includes a provision that “removes language related to the Executive proposal to regulate the operation of transportation network companies outside of New York City.” A bill introduced this year by Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Kevin Cahill that is currently in committee would once again propose a $1.5 million insurance coverage minimum.
In addition to expanding hail-railing services, Cuomo proposed consumer protections, minimum safety standards and state Department of Motor Vehicles licensing and oversight. His proposal also requires a minimum of $1 million of coverage while a ride-hailing vehicle is on the way to pick up a passenger and while transporting a passenger. While there are some differences between the state Senate and executive bills, they are closely aligned.
Unlike previous years, the debate has shifted to consumer safety. Uber in the past has suffered from several high-profile scandals, such as the recent reports of sexual harassment within the company and the use of a tool called “Greyball” to evade authorities.
Josh Gold, Uber’s New York policy director, said he believes this will not negatively impact the debate in Albany. “Ridesharing isn’t about one company. We have a lot of competitors,” he said. “That shouldn’t play a role in how New Yorkers feel about the lack or desire for ridesharing.”
“Ridesharing isn’t about one company. We have a lot of competitors. That shouldn’t play a role in how New Yorkers feel about the lack or desire for ridesharing.”
John Tomassi, president of the Upstate Transportation Association, a group of traditional livery and cab companies, said his group supports the Assembly’s bill, as it provides more protections. Tomassi argued the state Senate bill wouldn’t address what he described as flaws in Uber’s background checks. “It does not provide for fingerprinting, which we think is essential,” Tomassi said. “Down in the city they’re subject to the taxi regulations just like taxis, so from a public safety point of view, from an insurance point of view, they’re treated like taxis. We’d like to see the same thing apply in upstate for the rest of the public and the Senate bill does not offer that."
Gold called the fingerprinting of drivers issue a “red herring” and said it’s raised by the taxi industry because they know Uber has left areas when it’s required. He also argued in favor of statewide regulation.
“We believe in strict, comprehensive background checks. The governor’s proposal as well as the Senate proposal requires the use of a whole bunch of criminal databases, requires strict annual background checks, requires the use of the LENS program, which is unique to New York,” Gold said. “It’s the License Event Notification (Service), which would in real-time allow transportation network companies to know about (discriminating) events or anything else tied to an individual based on their license.”
Despite the difference, several key players believe that a compromise can be reached. Even Tomassi said he believes ride-hailing companies should be allowed to operate outside of New York City.
“I think there is still a difference between what the Senate has proposed and what we will propose,” Cahill said. “But I think that’s a difference that can be bridged through creative construction of insurance policies to a little give-and-take on both sides, but I believe we can come to a conclusion on this issue. I don’t think it separates us as it has in past years.”
Seward said both houses were very close to an agreement last December and it likely would have gotten done if there had been a special session.
“There were some very serious talks, I’d say we were very, very close in December,” Seward said. “Had we had a special session, I’m reasonably confident that the issue would have been resolved then and so I’m looking for a similar scenario as we close in on the budget.”