Rhode Island could become the latest state to set rules for ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, but first lawmakers must come to agreement on dueling bills — one favored by Uber and the other by traditional taxi operators.
Uber and Lyft have been operating in Rhode Island for years with little oversight. Uber has said it has thousands of drivers in the state, many of whom use the service as a part-time job. But the two lawmakers who led a group last year to study how to regulate the California-based tech companies came up with markedly different approaches.
Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat, worked with the office of Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo on crafting an Uber-friendly bill that defines transportation network companies, regulates them and establishes that drivers are independent contractors instead of employees. It resembles legislation adopted in many other states.
Rep. John Edwards, a Tiverton Democrat, introduced a competing House bill he said would do far more to vet the background of drivers and “level the playing field between the cabs, liveries and Uber.”
“They came in here and they did what they wanted to do and ignored our existing regulations,” Edwards said. “This will bring them back into the fold.”
A Senate Commerce Committee listened for hours on April 14 to supporters and critics of Goodwin’s bill. The Edwards bill was recently introduced and hasn’t been heard in the House.
Goodwin testified that her bill is the start of a conversation and is based on what has worked and what hasn’t in other states.
“It’s very necessary that we take some legislative action,” she told fellow senators. “We don’t want our residents and our visitors to the state hopping into cars that are uninsured that have drivers that don’t have significant background checks.”
But taxi operators said the proposed background checks and other rules she proposed don’t go far enough in putting Uber and Lyft through the same requirements that they’ve been following for years.
“I have no problem with Uber and Lyft operating in Rhode Island, but they need to be doing it the same way everybody else has been doing it, or there needs to be new legislation that affects everyone,” said John Olinger, CEO of Warwick-based All Occasion Transportation. “Uber and Lyft are transportation companies, not software companies. They arrange transportation for a fee — exactly what taxi and limousine companies do.”
Rick Szilagyi, CEO of the New England Livery Association, said taxi operators favor the House bill’s provisions on vetting drivers, identifying vehicles and insurance. While Goodwin’s bill requires companies to conduct a background check, the Edwards bill would require drivers to be fingerprinted and appear before a law enforcement officer for a national criminal records check.
Both bills would charge a yearly fee for each company’s permit — the Senate bill proposes $10,000 and the House bill proposes $15,000. The House bill would also limit each company to 100 vehicles, with $150 charged for each additional vehicle over that limit.
Cathy Zhou, Uber’s Rhode Island general manager, said the House bill creates “regulatory challenges and obstacles that could have serious impacts” on Uber’s riders and drivers.
Supporters of Uber who testified at the April 14 hearing included Nick Zammarelli, a blind Coventry schoolteacher who said he uses Uber to get to work, stores and coffee shops in his sparsely populated part of the state.
Zammarelli told senators: “Uber is as close as I will ever come to your kind of independence.”
“I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it’s changed my life,” he said.
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