Uber vs. taxi clash takes center stage at Statehouse hearing on proposed tougher regulations

Industrials Associated Press

The tension between traditional taxis drivers and those who drive for services like Uber and Lyft was on display Tuesday as Massachusetts lawmakers grappled with proposals to regulate the popular but largely unfettered ride-hailing services.

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The Financial Services Commitee is likely to recommend passage of a regulatory bill in the current legislative session, joining more than 20 other states that have imposed rules on the ride-hailing services, also known as transportation network companies. But it's unclear if the panel, which listened to several hours of testimony at a public hearing, will endorse a measure similar to that proposed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker or one offered by two Democratic lawmakers that seeks more stringent rules, including the fingerprinting of drivers.

Uber drivers wearing blue T-shirts and Lyft drivers in pink sat in one section of the packed auditorium and applauded testimony from Baker administration officials while dozens of cabbies — in yellow shirts — registered their approval for the bill filed by Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and Rep. Michael Moran.

Cabbies say services like Uber and Lyft — which let people use smartphone apps to book and pay for a private car service — have dramatically cut into their ability to earn a living.

"They took 80 percent of our business," complained Gurdip Singh, a Boston-area cab driver, in an interview before the hearing.

Baker's bill would require a two-tiered criminal background check on all drivers for ride-hailing companies that would determine if they had committed past crimes in Massachusetts or other states. Driving records would also be perused for drunken driving violations or other potential disqualifiers.

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The bill would also require that drivers carry at least $1 million of insurance and close a gap in insurance coverage for drivers who use their vehicles for both personal and commercial purposes. A higher level of insurance would kick in whenever drivers activate the ride-hailing app, reverting to personal car insurance premiums when the app is turned off.

Baker's approach recognizes the popularity of the companies and would "embrace the technology" while also assuring "the public is safe and that there are very clear and fair rules," said Angela O'Connor, chairwoman of the state Department of Public Utilities.

While acknowledging that their proposed rules go further than some in Baker's proposal, Forry and Moran, both Boston Democrats, fired back against sharp criticism that they were trying to undermine the ride-hailing companies.

"In no way are we trying to eliminate Uber or Lyft from the transportation industry in Massachusetts," Forry said. "To all the drivers out there who have been told we are taking away your livelihood, that we want to destroy you and transportation network companies, it is not true."

Meghan Joyce, Uber's East Coast General Manager, said in prepared testimony that the lawmakers' bill would discourage people from signing up to drive with the company by imposing rules that included "fingerprint checks not currently required of taxi and limo drivers and economically burdensome and duplicative insurance coverage."

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans testified that fingerprinting of drivers was critical to solving any crimes connected to ride-hailing companies. Administration officials noted that Baker's bill does give cities and towns the option to require fingerprinting or impose other regulations.