HARRISBURG - Uber and Lyft drove toward legal status in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
On its final voting day before a Thanksgiving break, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that creates provisions to permanently legalize the ride-sharing services.
The companies, which connect riders and drivers through mobile apps, currently operate on temporary licenses throughout most of the state. In Philadelphia, both offer service despite lacking the required licenses.
The bill would require ride-sharing companies to perform background checks for all potential drivers, mandate a certain level of car insurance, keep records of the vehicles used by all drivers, and implement a "zero-tolerance" policy for drug and alcohol use by drivers on the job, among other provisions.
Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R., Beaver), the sponsor, said the bill aimed to ensure that ride-sharing companies "are capable of operating responsibly and safely."
Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) said he was displeased with parts of the bill - such as not requiring the companies to contribute more money toward city schools - but voted for it because the companies provide a valuable consumer service.
Uber and Lyft have boomed in popularity in recent few years - and generated controversy. Uber's cheapest option, UberX, as well as Lyft have flouted Philadelphia law by using drivers without commercial licenses.
Doing so can pose a threat to consumers, according to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which regulates taxi service. At times, the agency has pulled over ride-sharing drivers and impounded their cars.
Uber and Lyft have temporary licenses to operate elsewhere in the state, but administrative judges with the Public Utility Commission last week recommended a $50 million fine against Uber for starting to operate before those licenses were granted. The fine, which is awaiting final approval, was the largest recommended in commission history. Until then, the steepest recommended fine had been less than $2 million, said PUC spokeswoman Robin Tilley.
Uber and Lyft have also cut into demand for traditional taxis. During its first year in Philadelphia, Uber said, UberX provided rides to about 700,000 people in the city. Uber also has a fleet of pricier black cars and SUVs that operate legally, like limousines.
Jon Feldman, general manager for Uber Pennsylvania, said Tuesday that the vote was "a major victory for choice and opportunity across the state."
Vince Fenerty, executive director of the PPA, said the agency hoped to strengthen consumer protection measures with lawmakers as the proposal moves forward.
The bill must still pass the House and win Gov. Wolf's approval. Wolf's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, said the measure is under review. "Overall," he said, "Gov. Wolf supports ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, and he wants these companies to grow."
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