Note: This Text replaces an earlier blog version.
FAIR AND SAFE RIDES FOR ALL
Ask any small business owner and they will tell you it is a day to day struggle to keep operations running efficiently and make a living doing so. Running a business in Rhode Island presents a number of additional challenges, but try running a business that is heavily regulated, restricted to operate in specific geographical areas and has its service charges set by a public board. Now imagine your competition is a multi-billion dollar international company that provides the same service without being subject to the same rules, regulations or taxes and fees. Welcome to the taxi and livery business in Rhode Island.
Historically, the for-hire transportation industry has never been adverse to competition and that holds true today. The taxi and livery industry has survived and thrived for decades despite the various and expanding choices consumers have for alternative transportation options. Every new competitor in the business of for-hire services has entered the market by seeking approval from the regulatory body tasked with oversight of the industry, the Division of Public Utilities Commission (DPUC). Yet the most recent entrants into the for-for-hire transportation sector, Transportation Network Companies (TNC) or publicly known as Uber and Lyft, have taken a different approach. In short, they entered the market without receiving approval from the DPUC and began offering services in direct competition with the longstanding law abiding companies.
A recent editorial in the Providence Journal “Regulate RI ride hailing” (5/6/16) highlighted bills introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly under the leadership of Sen. Maryellen Goodwin and Rep. John Edwards. The New England Livery Association (NELA) agrees that the General Assembly needs to act this session in order to provide regulations and laws governing TNCs, but we differ from the Providence Journal on which bill sets forth the fairest framework. In order to achieve a level playing field, TNCs should be subjected to the same regulations governing the following key issues; driver background checks, clear and conspicuous vehicle markings, an insurance plan that will provide the necessary coverage for all parties, vehicle inspections and sales tax applied to fares. Rep. Edwards bill comes closest to establishing framework that NELA supports.
Passenger safety has always been a priority of the for-hire transportation industry and NELA supports a national criminal background check that includes fingerprints and must be submitted to the FBI and administered by a local law enforcement entity. This background check process has been endorsed by top state law enforcement officials and is currently implemented in the cities of Houston and New York. It provides a higher standard of review not required for many NELA member drivers but in the effort to establish a uniform and proven system we stand ready to adopt this standard to ensure passenger safety.
In the effort to provide passengers with a safe ride experience, NELA is adamant that each TNC vehicle must be clearly identified with a marking that would allow for a passenger and law enforcement to recognize vehicles that provide ride services. In addition, we recommend the establishment of a state certified process that would require TNC drivers to submit their name and vehicle registration in order to ensure that the vehicle has met the required safety and insurance qualifications.
Finally, TNCs should be required to collect and remit the sales tax as it is currently applied to taxi and limousine services. Not only is this a fairness issue in the marketplace but the state is losing out on tax revenue.
NELA members understand that innovative ideas and concepts are part of a growing and expanding economy and our membership stands ready to fairly and openly compete for customers. Yet rules must be applied consistently regardless of how the paying passenger gets from one location to the next. We are supportive of the legislative intent to finally set forth a regulatory framework for TNCs and look forward to finding a compromise that establishes a fair, equitable and reasonable regulatory environment that ensures safe and efficient services for all.
Rick Szilagyi is the CEO of the New England Livery Association which is a non-profit corporation dedicated to promoting quality service and management in the ground transportation industry throughout New England.