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County joins push to bring ride-sharing services to Buffalo

Kazakhstan has Uber, but Buffalo doesn't.

Erie County Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo calls that just crazy.

The lack of ride-sharing services in the Buffalo Niagara region so annoys Lorigo and other lawmakers  that they voted Tuesday to redirect $100,000 earmarked for economic development efforts in Toronto to a new public relations campaign to bring Uber and Lyft to the region.

The ride-sharing services are illegal statewide, with the exception of New York City.

"I, absolutely, think it's an embarrassment," said Lorigo, R-West Seneca. "There’s no reason that downstate should have it and nobody else should."

Buffalo is the largest city in the United States - and the only National Football League and National Hockey League city - without ride-sharing services, said Visit Buffalo Niagara President Patrick Kaler.

When the NHL draft was held in Buffalo, Kaler said, the city did a "phenomenal job" orchestrating the event but was still slammed on social media.

"The one thing we got beat up on was our lack of ride-share services," he said.

That helps explain why the news conference Tuesday to announce the $100,000 marketing campaign was located at KeyBank Center, an arena synonymous with professional sports and major concert draws.

The Legislature approved a $1.7 billion county budget Tuesday afternoon. Mixed in among the budget amendments was a $100,000 increase to Visit Buffalo Niagara.

That money is aimed at helping the tourism agency develop a comprehensive public relations and marketing campaign to bring ride-share services to upstate and Western New York.

"We’re putting our money where our mouth is," said Lorigo, who has been a critic of the region's lack of ride-share alternatives. "I can only get up and rant about how our state legislators need to do something so many times."

When the New York State Senate voted 44 to 17 in June to pass a bill that would allow ride-share services to operate in Buffalo and the rest of upstate, Sen. Marc Panepinto, a Democrat from Buffalo, was one of the few upstate senators to vote against it.

He said on the Senate floor that he could not support it because of concerns about passenger safety, handicapped accessibility and no requirement that Uber and Lyft drivers be covered by worker's compensation insurance. The State Assembly did not pass the same ride-sharing bill, so it died in Albany.

Erie County legislators were joined by Kaler and Michael M. Gilbert, vice president of administration for the Buffalo Sabres and general manager of HarborCenter. Gilbert has called Buffalo's lack of ride-share services "prehistoric" and "laughable."

Although Buffalo Common Council members have also discussed and debated what should be done to permit ride-share services locally, the Erie County Legislature is the first local government to earmark a significant amount of money toward the effort to bring the services to the region.

In order to make that money available, the Legislature cut funding for the Greater Toronto Area Economic Development Office.

The Toronto office, established by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz in 2013, is not a physical office, but a contract with a Toronto-based firm to develop and cultivate leads with Toronto businesses that might consider relocating or expanding to Erie County.

Part of the county's Initiatives for a Smarter Economy, the Toronto office has not successfully brought any businesses to Erie County and has been a favorite target for cuts by the Republican-supported Legislature majority.

The Greater Toronto Area Economic Development Office isn't actually going away, said county spokesman Peter Anderson. Instead, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency is picking up future funding for the development program.

Ride-share services like Uber have spent huge sums to try and bring ride-share services to upstate New York, through petitions, public campaigns and political contributions. Most recently, Uber announced that 43,000 people in upstate attempted to use Uber services the day before Thanksgiving, but couldn't.

Kaler said Visit Buffalo Niagara will add to the PR effort, focusing more on personal appeals from locals. Social media messaging, letters, direct mail, traditional advertising - it's all on the table, he said.

"We need to make sure this bubbles up as a grassroots effort, that it’s not just the big corporations saying this," he said.

Although the County Legislature previously endorsed bringing ride-sharing services to the region, some members of the Legislature's Democratic minority criticized the Republican-supported majority Tuesday for allocating the $100,000 to the ride-sharing campaign and holding a press conference in the morning without informing Democrats about it prior to Monday.

"Transparency was not used. It is wrong," said Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo. "Is there anything else in this budget that is not as it appears?"

Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, who questioned the use of public money for a ride-share campaign, even made an initial attempt to separate out the ride-sharing campaign funding in a separate vote. He later withdrew his motion.

The 2017 proposed budget passed unanimously.

Lorigo said the Republican-supported majority would have been happy to answer any questions about the Visit Buffalo Niagara budget amendment if they'd been asked. Legislature Chairman John Mills also said all the Democrats were invited to attend the press conference.


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