After three years of trying, the effort to expand Uber and Lyft statewide in Louisiana may hinge on one seemingly arcane point: Which state agency should regulate the ride-hailing services?
Backers of the services favor the state Department of Transportation and Development, and even say they would rather see the bill die than yield on that point.
DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said he is fine with assuming the oversight. “I don’t have a problem with it coming to us,” Wilson said.
Critics insist Uber and Lyft should be under the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which already regulates some taxicabs in the state. “It ought to be under the Public Service Commission,” said Foster Campbell, a member of the PSC.
“We are in the regulation business,” Campbell said. “DOTD doesn’t regulate anyone.”
The measure, House Bill 575, cleared the House 92-0 on April 29 and, for the first time, has won approval in the Senate Judiciary A Committee, where it was killed in 2017 and 2018.
It even died last year when the measure was sponsored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.
The chief advocate for putting Uber and Lyft under the PSC — state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie — played a key role in killing the expansion bill in the past two years.
Exactly how many residents have easy access to the rides is unclear.
But backers say Louisiana is one of four or five states that lack uniform rules for ride-booking services, which they say cripples access to the services in much of the state.
That means Uber and Lyft are available in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and other major cities, with some complications, and much less so in rural areas.
State Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, the House sponsor of HB575, said he recently had a visitor who arrived at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and assumed she could use Uber to get to Houma.
“She got there and realized an Uber would not bring her to Houma,” he said. “She couldn’t rent a car because she didn’t have a driver’s license.”
Having uniform state rules, he said, would prevent such episodes.
Even in Baton Rouge and elsewhere, backers of the bill say, there are problems crossing parish lines for what they say should be routine trips that instead become one-way or nothing.
Magee said that, if Uber and other ride-hailing services are placed under the PSC, the state may wind up with another version of patchwork rules.
He said there is “at least an ambiguity” on whether the PSC can set rules for the services without running afoul of local authorities — one of the chief complaints about the varying regulations in place today.
“The goal here is to have a network that is statewide, that is seamless,” Magee said. “The PSC may be limited in its jurisdiction.”
Nick Juliano, public affairs manager for Uber, made the same point. “The PSC has unique, constitutional restraints on its jurisdiction,” he said.
He said that, as recently as 2017, Uber officials met with the staff of the PSC and were told the five-member panel “was not able to regulate as envisioned under the bill.”
But Brandon Frey, executive secretary of the PSC, said those concerns surfaced at a time when municipalities and others were resisting the legislation because they said it would upset local ordinances. Under this year’s bill, those local rules would be allowed to remain intact.
Frey said that, of 17 other states with uniform rules where a PSC-like panel includes a transportation component, 15 oversee ride-booking services.
“What they are asking to do is out of the norm,” he said of efforts by backers to put the rules under the DOTD.
In a statement, PSC Commissioner Eric Skrmetta said the PSC “would be the ideal regulatory agency” to oversee ride-sharing services and that doing so would be in line with national trends.
Supporters of the legislation noted that the PSC regulates some but not all taxicab services — 10 carriers statewide.
DOTD Secretary Wilson said putting the industry under his agency makes sense with how transportation is evolving, and that doing so could provide DOTD with valuable data on traffic movement.
The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary A Committee last week on a 2-1 vote.
Martiny tried to change the legislation to put the services under the PSC. “From a public safety standpoint, what is wrong with the Public Service Commission?” Martiny asked. But the amendment failed on a 2-2 vote.
On Thursday the bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee, which reviewed it because 1 percent of the fees would be returned to the state. That means that, as a fee-raising measure, the bill could require a two-thirds majority in the Senate: 26 votes in the 39-member chamber.
Another possible complication is anger among some New Orleans taxicab drivers and their allies, who say Uber and Lyft would face less stringent oversight than they do.
Magee said part of the controversy stems from a mindset that equates Uber and Lyft with taxicabs.
“Uber and Lyft are not traditional taxicabs,” Magee said. “They really connect people to people; people who want to drive with people who want a ride. It is a completely different model.”