PUC approves emergency ride-sharing permits

PITTSBURGH – The state Public Utility Commission approved emergency permits Thursday for two ride-sharing companies to operate in the Pittsburgh area.

The PUC had previously obtained cease-and-desist orders – which the San Francisco-based firms Lyft and Uber ignored – over concerns that drivers, their vehicles, and – especially – their insurance didn’t meet regulations for taxi cabs and other similar services.

Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft use smartphone apps to dispatch drivers who use their own personal vehicles to give people rides. The drivers then share the fares they collect with the companies.

Mayor Bill Peduto and scores of ride-sharing customers had lobbied the PUC to allow the services to continue operating in Allegheny County, saying they provide a much-needed alternative to cab and limo services. The five-member commission agreed the “emergency temporary authority” it granted would provide an “immediate and substantial benefit” to the public.

Uber and Lyft praised the ruling.

“With this decision, the PUC has recognized that regulations can and should be modernized to allow innovative industries to thrive while maintaining the highest level of public safety,” Lyft said. Uber’s statement was similar: “Today common sense prevailed, and we applaud the PUC for recognizing the critical need for safe, reliable transportation options in Pittsburgh.”

Both companies have separate applications pending to operate permanently in the county and statewide. Permanent licenses require hearings before administrative law judges and other proceedings, so the permits issued Thursday, which are good for 60 days but can be renewed, will let the companies operate in the meantime, PUC press secretary Jennifer Kocher said.

The commission indicated it planned to meet Aug. 28 to review the regulations it must develop or adapt for the ride-sharing companies, including insurance requirements, driver integrity, vehicle safety and whether there may come a need to determine geographic spheres in which ride-sharing companies may operate. The PUC also said it would work with the legislature on possible ride-sharing laws.

Before Thursday’s vote, the PUC had cited 32 drivers and fined both companies a combined $225,000 – or $1,000 per day – for operating without permits. Those complaints are still pending and it wasn’t immediately clear if the fines would be rescinded if the companies continue to seek permits through normal channels.

Other states have been working to upgrade their public transportation regulations or craft entirely new laws to regulate ride-sharing companies.

A Colorado law passed earlier this year requires drivers to pass criminal background and driving history checks. The drivers’ cars must pass vehicle inspections and be clearly marked.