After Mass. House OK, Senate Takes Up Uber Regulations

By | March 14, 2016

It seems likely based on recent legislative developments that Massachusetts will adopt regulations for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, but it’s still far too early to assume what the final rules might entail.

A sweeping bill approved by the House on March 9 addresses background checks for drivers, insurance requirements and other issues related to the services, known officially as Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs. Senate President Stan Rosenberg has tapped Acton Democrat Jamie Eldridge to oversee the drafting of a Senate bill that won’t necessarily mirror the House approach in every area.

“It remains to be seen if concerns from both the taxi industry and TNCs can be addressed,” said Eldridge. “There is rarely a bill where all parties are completely satisfied.”

Indeed, the House bill has drawn criticism from Uber and Lyft, along with a rebuke from cab drivers who say their very livelihoods are imperiled by the rise of the largely unfettered ride-hailing services.

Legislators say their job is to produce a balanced law, not take sides on a contentious issue.

“I am proud that the House took the initiative to tackle this tough issue, effectively safeguarding the innovative nature of transportation network companies while enhancing consumer protection and public safety,” said Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who named the bill as one of his top priorities for 2016.

Nearly 30 states have already passed laws regulating ride-hailing services in some way, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Authors of the House bill say it would make Massachusetts one of the first to create a two-tiered criminal background check for drivers, the first to be conducted by the company and the second by state regulators.

Notably excluded from the House bill is any fingerprinting requirement.

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, whose department recently began taking fingerprints of the city’s roughly 6,000 licensed cabbies, had been among those pushing for the same requirement for TNCs.

“I am disappointed to learn that fingerprinting was not included in the bill,” Evans said. “Especially seeing how quick and simple the process has gone with Boston taxi drivers.”

Eldridge has yet to take a position on fingerprinting but says “everything is on the table” in the Senate.

Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Dan Bennett, a former prosecutor, said modern background checks are thorough and sophisticated enough to eliminate a need for fingerprinting.

Uber and Lyft, which strongly oppose fingerprinting, nonetheless found much to dislike in the House bill.

A statement from Uber said it would “stifle growth and innovation.” Lyft similarly said it could not support the bill because it would limit consumer choice and restrict competition. Both indicated they would seek changes in the Senate.

The companies object to a five-year ban that would be imposed on TNCs at Logan International Airport and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, a major concession to taxi drivers.

In a blog post, Uber Boston general manager Chris Taylor outlined several other concerns with the bill that he said would increase costs for drivers and raise prices for riders without improving safety.

Meanwhile, the Boston Taxi Owners Association said in a letter urging lawmakers to reject the bill that it would do nothing to level the playing field for smaller cab operators most impacted by the newer industry. The group labeled “utterly unjust and unequal” the absence of fingerprinting or other provisions like a limit on the number of TNC vehicles allowed on the road.

Eldridge praised the House for laying a solid groundwork and noted areas of consensus, including creation of a new division within the Department of Public Utilities serve to as the regulators for TNCs.

He gave no timetable but said senators were committed to leaving enough time for the two branches to negotiate a compromise before the legislative session ends July 31.

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