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UberX and Lyft on the cusp of legal status in Philly

It took more than a year, countless false starts, and a few legal battles, but it appears that legislation to make ride-hailing apps legal in Pennsylvania is finally going to become law.

"I'm looking at it passing through the Senate on Monday," said State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, who introduced the bill in September 2015. "I don't see that we're going to be changing anything on Monday morning."

The bill  passed the House unanimously Wednesday. Gov. Wolf's office said Thursday that he expected to sign the bill into law.

UberX's and Lyft's temporary legal status expired in Philadelphia at the beginning of October and statewide at the end of the year. Philadelphia is the only county in the state where the Philadelphia Parking Authority, rather than the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, has oversight of commercial car services.

The bill would create standards for ride-hailing apps that include insurance coverage for passengers, background checks on drivers, and, in Philadelphia, a 1.4 percent tax on each ride. Two thirds of that would go to the Philadelphia School District and a third to the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

It would allow the PPA some ability to oversee UberX and Lyft operations, granting it the right to conduct random checks on vehicle inspections and driver background checks, as well as allow the PPA to perform a limited number of its own inspections. The PPA had already begun loosening the regulations on cabs, but the bill includes language relaxing taxi regulations in Philadelphia. That addresses the major concern of the taxi industry:  that UberX and Lyft, unburdened by the rules and expensive fees imposed by the PPA, had a competitive disadvantage over cabs.

"It looks like, instead of a regulated industry, we're going to have a deregulated taxi industry as well as deregulated ride sharing," said Ron Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Philadelphia.

The bill could reduce the PPA's revenue. The tax on UberX and Lyft may not generate the $4 million the authority said it needed to regulate the industry, and a new 1 percent tax on the gross operating revenue of cab owners should bring in less than the current tax formulation.

Advocates seeking improved access to transportation for people with disabilities also were pleased that the bill would require UberX and Lyft collectively to provide 70 wheelchair accessible vehicles in Philadelphia by June 30, 2017, with the possibility of adding 10 more each year until 2022, depending on demand.

"We're optimistic that they will comply because they were so involved with the shaping of the regulations," said Thomas Earle, of Liberty Resources, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. "Hopefully, they can live with it and be accountable to it."

Earle also said he was pleased that the bill included language to bar discrimination against passengers and make illegal more expensive rates for accessible vehicles.

Uber and Lyft have said they supported the bill.

Less satisfied were drivers in the city, though. Ali Razak, president of the Philadelphia Limousine Association, was dismayed that the bill contains no protections for workers, such as a mandatory minimum wage, protections against drivers being cut from access to the app, or restrictions on the number of drivers who can be active in a region.

"We will keep organizing," said Razak, who has been trying to recruit Uber drivers to participate in a drivers' guild. "We do need a solution on this."

Bartolotta said the bill was intended to be a consumer protection bill and was not designed to address labor concerns.

Cab owners and cab drivers have challenged the PPA in court, the former in U.S. District Court and the latter in the Court of Common Pleas, over UberX and Lyft. The suits have claimed that the PPA failed to provide equal protection. While the bill could resolve many of those issues if it becomes law, lawyers for the plaintiffs said, it may not resolve the issue of the damage already done to the taxi industry over the last two years.