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If ride-hailing is approved for upstate, who would regulate Uber and Lyft?

ALBANY – As efforts to legalize ride-hailing in upstate intensify, one key question remains: Who would regulate transportation companies like Uber if New York permits their services?

Localities now regulate taxi and liveries. But will the state be the sole entity to create and enforce regulations affecting the operations of firms like Uber and Lyft in upstate and on Long Island?

With just over a week before the scheduled adoption of a new state budget – and backers want ride-hailing inserted into the budget package – the sides have dug in over the question of local control.

The ride-hailing industry believes upstate risks getting only scattered service if companies like Uber must deal with dozens or perhaps hundreds of different local rules and regulations over matters like fare rates, how many drivers are allowed in a community and consumer protections to accommodate disabled people.

Complying with local rules will either reduce or dissuade companies from serving some communities, the industry believes.

“What state after state has realized is that the best way to regulate this new technology is at the state level to ensure that all residents have access to reliable, affordable transportation,’’ said Josh Gold, policy director for Uber in New York.

[RELATED: Assembly unveils bill to permit Uber, Lyft-like services upstate]

“A hodgepodge of rules does not serve the public well and could limit drivers’ ability to pick up and drop off in neighboring cities and towns,’’ he added.

It could also limit the pool of people interested in working as drivers.

Ayanna Lofton has been watching the news waiting for state leaders to allow ride-hailing services in upstate cities like Buffalo. She started working for Uber late last year to pick up some extra cash for the holidays. But since the company can't operate in Buffalo, she drove to Pennsylvania on the weekends to pick up business.

Even with the long commute, driving for Uber in another state was a better option than becoming a taxi driver in Buffalo, where she would have had to go through a more rigorous and costly registration process.

"That could make it hard for people," she said of more stringent regulations for drivers. "If you have to spend money on it to get up and running that would make people less interested. It should be easy to jump right in."

Buffalo mom makes holiday cash driving for Uber in Pennsylvania

The Buffalo Common Council said in a nonbinding resolution that ride-hailing should be allowed in the city under a “properly vetted and enacted statewide regulatory framework.”

But Uber’s opponents believe ride-hailing firms want a single, statewide set of rules in order to prevent some localities from banning the transportation services.

“You can call it different things, but it’s a taxi,’’ John Tomassi, president of the Upstate Transportation Association, said of ride-hailing vehicles.

As such, he believes, there should be one set of rules for both taxis and ride-hailing: either they both should have to live with municipalities’ regulations or taxis also should operate under a statewide regulatory structure if that’s what is decided for Uber, Lyft and the others.

In New York, no one “system” regulates taxis. Some statewide rules govern drivers’ license requirements and auto insurance. But localities have a wide latitude in regulating taxi companies. Some municipalities, such as Buffalo, require taxi drivers to have background checks by police. Some, also Buffalo, set limits on how many taxis can operate in a community. Some sell taxi medallions. There are different requirements for the maximum age of a taxi vehicle, whether a partition is needed between driver and customer, whether a meter is required or even how taxis are painted.

Groups representing different levels of governments in New York could not say how many different municipalities have their own taxi rules.

Measures that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Senate are pushing mandate a variety of statewide conditions on ride-hailing firms or drivers. There are specific insurance minimums, what has to be included on a receipt provided a passenger, bans on street hails, requirements that drivers be at least 19 years old and a ban on drivers convicted of certain sexual offenses. The Senate measure also leaves it to the state to devise additional ride-hailing regulations. But no one has seen what those regulations might entail.

For local officials, the opinions are mixed. Consider Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, one of the upstate mayors on a campaign to legalize ride-hailing.

“I’m not focused so much on who does the regulation. I’m more focused on making sure that ride-hailing comes to Buffalo and the other municipalities outside New York City," Brown said. "If the Legislature, in its wisdom, wants to give the regulating authority to Buffalo, I will accept that authority. But if it doesn’t go that way and the regulating authority is the state, I’m fine with that, as well."

The New York Conference of Mayors supports ride-hailing on behalf of city and village governments across New York, according to executive director Peter Baynes. But the organization “also believes cities and villages must retain some level of authority,” he said.

The New York State Association of Counties is not committing yet to the Assembly or Senate ride-hailing bills pending in Albany, according to its deputy director, Mark LaVigne.

“But our concerns with either or both of these measures would revolve around home rule issues involving sales tax and existing taxi and limousine commission authority,’’ he said.

The mantra of upstate ride-hailing backers has been clear: Give the rest of the state access to the services just like residents of New York City have enjoyed for several years.

But upstate would not get what New York City has if the Senate and Cuomo versions are adopted, said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat who supports ride-hailing. New York City would continue to self-regulate ride-hailing – such as imposing a surcharge on rides to help pay for handicap-accessible vehicles – if the statewide regulatory scheme envisioned in the Senate and Cuomo plans get OK’d. Upstate and Long Island would have to live under Albany’s terms, he said.

“We want to have what New York City has,’’ Ryan said.

He noted Buffalo would be barred from imposing its own fee on rides to pay for disabled-access vehicles or to use police background checks on Uber drivers just as the city now does with taxi drivers.

“One law for the whole state, it makes sense until you really think about it,’’ Ryan said.

How dug in Assembly Democrats are on local control is uncertain. It is possible their insistence – categorized by lawmakers as firm last week – will lessen this week as a new state budget gets finalized and unrelated items are traded. The Assembly could, for instance, trade one of its priorities – raising the age of legal adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old – for key items the Senate GOP wants, such as ride-hailing.

Ride-hailing executives say most states with the services have taken a statewide regulatory approach and that several states have or are in the process of moving from local to statewide control. They note New York risks becoming a regulatory maze like Florida, where complaints have been raised about coziness between some local boards and the taxi industry trying to limit Uber, Lyft and others.

The ride-hailing debate has been closely followed by people with disabilities who worry Uber, Lyft and others will not be required to set a portion of vehicles as handicap accessible. It was one of the topics demonstrators raised earlier this month at the Capitol when 25 people were arrested, including several from Buffalo.

[RELATED: Disabled voices left out of ride-hailing conversation, advocates say]

“From an accessibility standpoint, I would want one state standard,’’ said Todd Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy for Western New York Independent Living, a social service agency for people with disabilities. But, he cautioned, that is not being talked about in Albany by either the Senate or Cuomo plans.

“If the state won’t set an accessibility standard, local control is then the next best option,’’ he said of letting communities dictate the ride-hailing accessibility standards as well as enforcement efforts of those rules.

But state Sen. James Seward, an Oneonta Republican and sponsor of the Senate’s ride-hailing bill, worries about the impact on luring ride-hailing companies into some areas of New York if localities drive the regulatory process. “It just seems unwieldy,’’ he said of letting localities regulate ride-hailing.

Staff writer Tiffany Lankes contributed to this report.

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