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Ride-hailing in upstate expected sometime this summer

ALBANY – Ride-hailing transportation services like Uber and Lyft could be operating in upstate within a few months.

That follows an agreement at the Capitol to legalize the new form of competition to taxis and public transit systems.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say 60 to 90 days,’’ Sen. James Seward, an Oneonta Republican and sponsor of the ride-hailing bill in the Senate, said Thursday evening when asked when the services could first be seen in upstate and Long Island.

Under a deal that will be part of the new state budget being cobbled together, New York would become the 38th state in the nation to permit ride-hailing.

Ride-hailing for several years has been legal in New York City, which regulates the services as it does taxis and the livery industry.

The agreement, being called “tentative” until the complete budget is approved, comes after an intense and expensive two-year lobbying and public relations campaign by Uber and Lyft.

Hopes for an on-time state budget, due Friday night at midnight, were dashed Thursday when no budget bills were acted upon by either house.

None of the major bills were even introduced and lawmakers were uncertain when voting might begin. Differences still existed Thursday night over efforts to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years as well as how much to spend on education and how much of that spending would go to traditional public schools or charter schools.

Whether the Legislature is in Albany well into the weekend passing a $160 billion budget, or they head home and return next week to try again, remains uncertain.

The ride-hailing industry, with the backing of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Senate Republicans and various business and travel organizations, won several key battles. These included beating back an effort by Assembly Democrats and local governments to permit municipalities to regulate ride-hailing as they can with taxi services.

Instead, the final deal calls for a statewide regulatory system based on the provisions of the new legislation – which has not been publicly released – and rules created in the coming months by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The final deal includes a number of other victories by the transportation companies, including an effort to mirror the New York City law that directs a fraction of each fare into ride-hailing vehicles that can accommodate disabled people.

“The disabled community will be left by the curbside,’’ Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said of the final deal that he said does not provide the same level of consumer and driver protections in upstate as is now the law in New York City.

The only open ride-hailing issue is a revenue-sharing dispute between Cuomo and the Legislature. The governor’s plan calls for each ride to be charged a 4 percent tax, which will then go to the state’s general fund.

Lawmakers want a portion of that money to be dedicated to local public transit agencies to help them deal with expected ridership declines to the new services and to help fund programs to expand transportation options for disabled people.

Ryan said the ride-hailing deal had been finalized, but was re-opened after upstate Assembly Democrats went to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to get the revenue matter into the talks. Assembly Democrats proposed that 1 percent of the 4 percent state tax – which is expected to bring Albany $24 million – be directed to transit agencies.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans from Buffalo to Long Island were enlisted into the fight, he said, and the request for transit agency assistance doubled to 2 percent of the state’s take.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat and the Assembly’s bill sponsor, called the final deal a compromise that will allow the ride-hailing companies to spread into upstate and on Long Island.

But Cahill predicted the issues raised over local control of the industry will return to the Capitol in the years ahead. He offered his harshest words for Uber, who he accused of providing misleading information on a range of issues during the past couple of years of wrangling in Albany.

“They are a company that deserves to be watched more carefully than unfortunately this legislation will allow, but fortunately this legislation isn’t carved into stone. We can revisit this when colleagues start to have some real experiences with it,’’ Cahill said.

The assemblyman laid out the terms of the deal, which include:

* Permitting all 57 counties outside New York City to opt out of ride-hailing services if they choose, as well as cities with populations over 100,000 people: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers.

“Local control is important and these are the communities where it’s most likely the transportation network companies will do business and it is where they might become destructive to the existing structure of commercial personal transportation,’’ Cahill said.

* Requiring companies offering ride-hailing upstate to provide workers compensation coverage for drivers through an existing fund that exists for livery drivers in New York City.

* Requiring insurance coverage levels of up to $1.25 million once a driver is on the way to pick up a passenger and until the ride is completed.

* Directing civil cases involving drivers or passengers to arbitration instead of the courts.

* Creation of a state task force to consider disability access recommendations for ride-hailing companies and language barring companies from discriminating against passengers based not only on things like disabilities, gender, sexual orientation but also the person’s travel destination as a way to reduce racial redlining.

Ride-hailing has been promoted by a diverse assortment of groups, including restaurant operators and tourism agencies.

Backers have said Buffalo is the nation’s largest city without ride-hailing, an absence that visitors from other areas, attending such recent events as the NCAA basketball tournament in Buffalo, that was especially noticed.

“This is long overdue for upstate New York,’’ Seward said. “Just the image of upstate New York that people had coming from other parts of the country and seeing the services not available … gives us a bad image that perhaps upstate is not the place to be. We want to reverse that.’’

Uber, the nation’s largest ride-hailing company, was not declaring victory yet. In December, the company had been confident its services would be legalized during a special session of the Legislature. But that session never happened.

“We are hopeful that lawmakers will soon reach a compromise to ensure that New Yorkers will gain access to affordable, reliable transportation options,’’ said Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang.

The Upstate Transportation Association, which represents taxi cab companies, said the agreement places fewer rules on Uber and Lyft in upstate than in New York City. It cited fingerprint background checks of prospective drivers as one of the differences.

“Remember this: if a violent criminal passes Uber’s flawed background check and threatens the life of an upstate passengers, New Yorkers will ask state lawmakers why they capitulated to Uber and ignored public safety,’’ said John Tomassi, president of the group.

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