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Senate Passes Bill Regulating Uber And Lyft

Over taxi industry objections, Senate passes bill regulating Uber and Lyft

A Statehouse hearing on the ride-sharing bill.

By Shira Schoenberg | [email protected]
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on June 29, 2016 at 7:58 PM, updated June 29, 2016 at 8:14 PM

BOSTON – The Massachusetts Senate on Wednesday passed a bill regulating ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft after hours of debate on amendments.

The bill pitted the ride-sharing services against the taxi industry. Ride-sharing companies largely favored the Senate version of the bill, while taxi representatives said it did not do enough to protect public safety. The taxi industry has complained that it is far more regulated than ride-sharing drivers are.

State Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, said the bill strikes a balance “to allow (Transportation Network Companies) to continue to work here and innovate, but also we worked hard to enhance public safety and consumer protections.”
The bill passed 34-2, with Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, and Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, as the two dissenting votes.

The Senate bill will now have to be reconciled with a bill that passed the House in March. There are significant differences between the two bills relating to background checks, insurance and exclusivity for taxicabs at Logan Airport and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

One contentious amendment, sponsored by State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, D-Dorchester, and pushed for by the taxi industry, would have required a fingerprint-based background check on every ride-sharing driver.

“Everybody who’s driving commercially should have a fingerprint and an FBI background check before they get into a car so the public can know there’s a level of safety that should be guaranteed by government,” said Scott Solombrino, president and CEO of BostonCoach and DavEl, a chauffeured transportation network, and a spokesman for the Ride Safe MA advocacy group.

The measure was rejected, 14-24.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said fingerprinting is not necessary to ensure public safety. “The background checks required by the bill are sufficient to protect the public without stifling innovation of a nascent industry,” Eldridge said. Eldridge said fingerprint checks are run through an FBI database that often has incomplete information.

Senators also rejected another amendment the taxi industry favored, which was sponsored by McGee, that would have required ride-sharing cars to have special license plates.

The Senate agreed to an amendment favored by the ride-sharing services eliminating a requirement that the services provide a way for riders to tip using an online application. Senators rejected an amendment prohibiting cash tips.
The Senate also agreed to eliminate a requirement that ride-sharing services did not like restricting out-of-state drivers by requiring that ride-sharing cars be registered in Massachusetts.

State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who was on the committee that wrote the bill, said regulating ride-sharing companies is important to Western Massachusetts, which is “heavily car dependent.” Lesser said the growth of ride-sharing better connects downtown Springfield to the suburbs, connects the colleges in Amherst and Northampton to Greater Springfield, and helps people get to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.

“Ridesharing opens up brand new opportunities for those of us who live in the western part of the state or areas not traditionally served by public transportation,” Lesser said.

Other senators raised concerns about the bill. State Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, said lawmakers’ top job is to protect public safety. She supported amendments such as the fingerprinting requirement. “In our zeal for a new product that is innovative, we need to remember our job is to protect the safety of all of our consumers,” L’Italien said.

State Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, chairman of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said the bill ignores the question of whether ride-sharing services are complying with state labor laws when they classify drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. “We’re opening the door by legitimizing the industry without holding the industry accountable to labor laws in Massachusetts,” Wolf said.

Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson praised the bill. “We applaud the Senate for passing legislation that expands consumer choice, encourages innovation and ensures passenger safety in the Commonwealth,” Wilson said in a statement.

Uber Boston General Manager Chris Taylor thanked senators for “their deliberative and open process that led to a significant step forward for innovation, transportation and economic growth for communities across the commonwealth.”

Solombrino criticized the bill for “lacking in public safety provisions” by not including FBI background checks, fingerprinting or special license plates and not mandating sufficient insurance coverage. “The public is left vulnerable and unprotected still,” Solombrino said. “This is categorically unacceptable.”

Under the bill, every driver must undergo a background check by the ride-sharing company. Drivers must not be sex offenders, must not have been convicted of certain crimes within seven years, and must have no more than five traffic violations or any major traffic violations within the past three years. Drivers will have to apply to the state for a decal, which will identify them as ride-sharing drivers.

The bill requires the companies to provide accurate fare estimates, prohibits fare increase during emergencies, requires companies to set up a toll-free hotline for customer complaints, and requires drivers to pick up passengers with special needs.

The bill adds a 10-cent charge per ride, with the money going to compensate cities and towns for their transportation needs.