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County in driver’s seat on Uber, Lyft policy

While mobile ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft could legally expand their coverage areas across New York state by early summer, it will ultimately fall on Westchester County lawmakers to accept the state’s regulations, or to push for even tighter restrictions.

Included in the state budget adopted earlier this month was a law allowing ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber—which allow customers to order and pay for a ride with a few taps on a smartphone—to operate across New York state, expanding beyond New York City, where those companies have been operating through the city’s taxi and limousine laws since 2011.

The state law would require a list of insurance coverage during different stages of the service, and would require drivers to undergo state background checks. Drivers are required to have at least $1.25 million personal liability coverage, and the same amount in supplemental uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. The state law also puts a 4 percent tax on ride revenue.

Riders cannot legally take Uber or Lyft rides within Westchester County until at least July, but a recent screenshot of Uber drivers available in White Plains shows that they’re here, regardless of the current restrictions. Photo courtesy Uber

But the ride-hailing legislation also allows the state’s counties and its largest cities to decide for themselves whether to accept the state’s provisions, to block the services altogether, or to further expand on the requirements made by the state. Any municipality with a population of 100,000 or more—in Westchester, that list includes only Yonkers and the county at large—has the option to accept or reject the state’s provision.

According to county Legislator Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat who plans to run for county executive, county lawmakers are not certain whether Westchester will remain in or opt out of the program. He said the decision will be based on if the county can adjust the law to fit Westchester’s individual needs for fairness and safety.

“The taxi and limousine folks would be at a competitive disadvantage,” Jenkins said, explaining that taxi and limo drivers pay state and county sales tax totaling more than 7 percent, higher than the 4 percent ride-hailing tax included in the new state law.

Taxi groups like the Upstate Transportation Association have pushed to add fingerprinting to the list of requirements for Uber and Lyft drivers in fairness to taxi and limo drivers, who are fingerprinted as a requirement of taxi and limousine commissions across the state, including Westchester County. But that provision was not included in the final draft of the law.

Dan Branda, a spokesman for Republican County Executive Rob Astorino, said the administration was reviewing the legislation while the state DMV works to release its official ride-hailing regulations. Meanwhile, he said, “Our focus continues to be on passenger safety, including that vehicles will be properly insured and maintained and that drivers will be vetted with fingerprint-based background checks and drug and alcohol testing.”

Earlier this year, Jenkins proposed a county law which would have allowed ride-hailing in the Westchester. However, the state legislation fulfills nearly every provision recommended in that draft, which proposed that drivers maintain $1 million in personal liability insurance and undergo county background checks, and that ride-hailing apps send photos of drivers to patrons.

Jenkins’ law was sent to the county Public Safety and Social Services Committee on Feb. 13; it has not been officially discussed in committee, as of press time.

Sen. George Latimer, a Rye Democrat who also plans to run for county executive in November, said that in the interim, the county should meet with other suburban counties like Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, to ensure that the law to bring ride-hailing “upstate,” applies fairly to counties nearest New York City.

Individual ride-hailing companies may decide which cities and counties will get the service first based on where the best markets are, although Westchester may appear an obvious choice given its proximity to New York City and the rate at which Uber and Lift drivers venture into, out of, and sometimes within its borders. While those services have not been legally available in Westchester, drivers have often operated here nonetheless, using the county airport as one of several hubs.

By this summer, Uber and Lyft will be available—legally—in every state in the continental U.S. and ride-hailing officials are excited for the expansion.

“Thank you to Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo and the New York state Legislature for working hard on a compromise that will bring more transportation options to the Empire State,” said Josh Mohrer, Uber’s tri-state general manager. “We can’t wait to bring reliable, affordable transportation options to the entire state this summer.”

The law allowing those services to operate in the state goes into effect on July 8, 90 days after it was passed, allowing time for the state Department of Motor Vehicles to establish regulations.

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