[dropcap color=”#888″ type=”square”]A[/dropcap]LBANY COUNTY – Local Assemblyman Phil Steck (D-110) came under Twitter attack earlier this month when Troy restauranteur Vic Christopher, owner of Peck’s Arcade and Lucas Confectionary, publicly called him out for not supporting legislation that would allow transportation network companies—those that utilize social media and smartphone apps to connect would-be riders with willing drivers using personal vehicles, such as Uber and Lyft—to operate in upstate New York.
The Twitter campaign against Steck’s position lasted three days, and began on June 3 with two tweets from Christopher:
“Yeah, it was a little aggressive,” said Christopher later that day. “But we don’t have time to be nice guys every day.” His concern, he said, was that if currently proposed legislation doesn’t make it to the floor in time for a vote, the Capital District would have to wait yet another year to potentially welcome the ride-sharing services to our streets.
On the same Friday, in a phone interview with Spotlight, Steck enumerated the reasons for his opposition to a bill that would have allowed network drivers to be insured through their ride-sharing company—a necessary first step in bringing the service to the Capital District, according to state counsel. “There are two issues,” he said. “One is: what insurance requirements should be associated with those drivers? The other issue is: who has the responsibility to regulate this?”
Uber and Lyft operate in New York City, explained Steck, because the companies have agreed to follow “black car” regulations put forth by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates, among other things, black car transportation services—a type of pre-arranged dispatch chauffeur service commonly used in the city that operates similarly to the proposed transportation network companies. In upstate, said Steck, it gets complicated because each municipality has the power to adopt its own regulations and rules regarding taxi service under the current law, meaning that each city, town and village could have different rules with which drivers would have to comply. A region-wide regulatory agency, he countered, would be preferable for companies such as Uber and Lyft because they would consistently operate across municipal boundaries.
“There is a bill that [Assemblyman] John McDonald (D-108) wrote, on which I am a co-sponsor, which would allow the Capital District Transportation Authority to be the regional regulator of this type of service—which I think is a major step forward.
“I’m a co-sponsor on that bill,” he said of A.9878, a bill that simply authorizes CDTA to set uniform regulations for the ride-share companies. “So people can’t accuse me of being against Uber and Lyft, if they’re being truthful. I’m not against it; I don’t want to ban them from operating. The question is the conditions under which they operate.”
The bill that recently made it out of the assembly insurance committee—on which Steck sits—and is now on the codes committee agenda, is a different bill introduced by the chairman of the insurance committee, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-103) and is co-sponsored by local Assembly members Pat Fahy (D-109) and John McDonald (D-108). The bill, A.08195—opposed by Steck, who criticized it as too complicated—sets different insurance requirements for a driver depending on whether they have a passenger, are going to pick up a passenger or are simply logged into the service. A driver who is logged in and able to receive transportation requests, for instance, but is not currently engaged in transporting a pre-arranged passenger, must have liability insurance in the amount of at least $100,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $300,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage and coverage. A driver currently engaged in transporting a passenger, however, is required to have liability insurance that provides at least $1,500,000 for death, bodily injury and property damage and coverage.
“I would have preferred one simple insurance solution,” said Steck, adding that he’s also bothered that the legislation contains an opt-out option for municipalities. “So if a municipality doesn’t want to participate, they don’t have to,” he said. “I think we need a regional solution and that it should be mandatory.”
That specific legislation also requires that the insurance provided through a group policy be maintained by the transportation network company; beyond establishing a required Driver’s Injury Compensation Fund to be managed by a board of directors chosen by state officials, the bill requires little else.
A similar, but by no means identical, senate bill—S.4108, amended for the fourth time on June 9 by the state senate insurance committee—delineates a two-tiered system ($50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident, and $25,000 for property damage and coverage while simply logged into the network; $1M across all three categories when carrying a passenger), but makes no mention of a compulsory fund or additional regulations for potential drivers beyond the display of adequate identification.
“Uber,” said Christopher, “as in other states, has proposed a three-tiered insurance system. It’s a little complicated, but they would be able to maintain proof of that based on the technology that’s available in almost all of the United States right now.”
“When companies like Uber and Lyft comes in with lobbyists,” said Steck, “what they want you to do is to take their bill and what they want, 100 percent. If every lobbyist that came in on behalf of a wealthy, successful business said, ‘Phil, we want you to do this bill exactly our way and, if you don’t do it, we’re going to attack you publicly. . .’ if I gave into that, and was intimidated by every suggestion of that kind, I would not be a very good legislator.
“Another problem is this,” continued the Assemblyman. “Under current law, Uber drivers are not considered employees of Uber so, if the driver assaults a passenger—which has happened in taxis generally and in the case of Uber, as we know—the only person liable is the driver himself.” Making transportation network companies responsible for such incidents, he conjectured, might prompt them to begin employing precautionary screening for potential drivers. “It would encourage more responsible recruitment of drivers if that were required.” Steck went on to point out that discrimination laws are only applicable to employees, “which Uber drivers are not.”
Another bill, A.06090—also introduced by Cahill, by contrast, contains a host of additional regulations: the provision of services in a non-discriminatory manner; no additional charges for individuals with physical or mental disabilities; background checks on drivers; specific identification; and a clear payment structure, including digital receipts. That bill never made it out of the transportation committee early this year.
“Just because I voted against that bill (A.08195) doesn’t mean I’m gainst Uber,” said Steck. “I just thought we could have done a better bill. It means I feel that not enough thought went into this particular proposal and that other issues that implicate insurance should have been covered.”
“To comply with basic regulatory standards is not too much to ask of multi-million dollar companies to ensure the safety of customers,” Steck said in a press release on Tuesday, June 7. “Uber and Lyft would be a great addition to our marketplace. But I cannot in good conscience agree to allow a business, which does not actually have any direct employees as drivers, to operate here without a establishing a modicum of safety for passengers. Nevertheless, in recognition of the importance of this issue to many of my constituents, we should pass the insurance bill now and work to make appropriate corrections later.”
Whether or not the currently-proffered legislation will be signed into law during this legislative session—which ends on June 16—is still uncertain, said Steck. “Even if the Assembly passes this bill, it still needs to be agreed upon by the Senate and the executive branch. There are a lot of differences between the house’s bills that will need to be worked out, and I think Cuomo would prefer more simplicity in the insurance scheme. There are no guarantees at this point.”