Drivers for ride-sharing companies such as Lyft and Uber soon will have to follow new rules at Maine’s largest airport.
Officials at the Portland International Jetport have for years wanted to regulate ride-sharing companies to better manage congestion and impose fees to fix a persistent budget shortfall.
But until last month, state law barred towns and cities from regulating so-called transportation network companies. That meant the jetport couldn’t even put up signs to tell passengers where to pick up a ride, airport Director Paul Bradbury said.
“They were pre-empted under the law,” he said. “It’s not sensible.”
A new state law allows airports with at least 20,000 passenger boardings a year to put limited regulations on ride-sharing companies. Only Portland and Bangor meet that benchmark.
The jetport plans to regulate Uber and Lyft the same way it does taxis and limousines that passengers reserve in advance.
Ride-sharing companies will have to pay a $2 per-trip charge and only six vehicles at a time will be allowed to wait for passengers on jetport property, Bradbury said. Pickup areas will be designated near the baggage claim area.
The jetport plans to post draft rules this month and start regulations in July. The Bangor International Airport is considering its own rules.
“We are not trying to go and treat transportation network companies differently,” Bradbury said. “This is matching what we are already doing to similar commercial ground transportation.”
Smartphone-based apps that use GPS to connect private drivers with passengers willing to pay for a ride have ballooned in the last decade. Uber and its competitor Lyft now operate in most of southern Maine.
The jetport has contended with ride-sharing drivers clogging up the baggage claim area or circling the property waiting for a passenger request, Bradbury said. Confused passengers wandering the airport searching for their ride is a safety concern.
“If you don’t know where to pick up your ride, you will cross the road more, they don’t know where to find you, there is traffic,” Bradbury said. “A person crossing the road diagonally with luggage looking at their cellphone is not particularly safe.”
A MATTER OF MONEY, TOO
But officials are also looking at the jetport’s bottom line. In the last three years, the jetport’s ground transportation account has been under budget by at least 25 percent. This year’s $180,000 budget has a $43,700 shortfall. Last year, the deficit rose to $50,000.
The jetport has to transfer money from other accounts to address those shortfalls, Bradbury said.
Since ride-sharing has been unregulated, the jetport has no reliable estimates about how many trips drivers make, or how much revenue it has missed out on since Uber started in Portland about five years ago.
“This could get us from having a deficit to something that covers the cost and ekes out a small surplus,” Bradbury said.
The per-trip fee would be paid by the companies and passed on to passengers. Drivers will not have to pay fees to the jetport.
Uber, the oldest and largest ride-sharing company, backed the state law changes.
“We’re glad to have worked with legislators on this bill and believe it strikes an important balance between supporting local airports and protecting riders and drivers,” company spokesman Harry Hartfield said in response to an email asking how Uber intends to comply with the new local rules.
Lyft did not respond to emails sent over two days asking how the company will comply with the regulations.
Russ Purinton, who has been driving for Uber in Portland for four years, isn’t opposed to the new rules, but questions if the problem is as bad as officials make it seem.
Uber and Lyft have a digital geofence around the jetport that prevents drivers from picking up rides inside the perimeter. That cuts down on people circling the terminal to be first in line for a passenger request, Purinton said. Most drivers wait just outside the fence, at the airport hotel, nearby office and business parks.
“There isn’t really a problem at the moment with drivers circling the airport, and if you are in that area you won’t get ride requests anyway,” Purinton said.
He isn’t against reserving a limited number of spaces for ride-share drivers, but Purinton said the airport only gets busy a few times a day when flights come in. Most of his airport business is driving passengers booked on early morning flights out of the city.
“I don’t feel like it is worth going out there just to wait for rides,” he said.
Portland cabbies also question if the new regulations will dent competition from ride-sharing companies.
Taxi companies are regulated by the city and drivers have to get special city licenses. If they want to pick up unreserved passengers the airport, they have to pay an annual fee of $800. Last year, 243 taxi drivers and 118 cabs were licensed with the city.
There is no accurate estimate of how many ride-share drivers work in Portland and Maine because they do not have to register with the state or city. A closed Facebook group for Greater Portland Uber and Lyft drivers has 130 members and a statewide group has 403.
Uber and Lyft drivers don’t have to get any special license, pay fees or submit a criminal background check to the city, said Abdi Hagi, who has been driving a taxi since 2003. Hagi watches drivers pick up passengers freely while he has to wait his turn in a taxi queue. He estimates ride-sharing has taken 80 percent of the taxi business.
“They don’t have to pay anything,” Hagi said.
Mohamed Shuriye, a 20-year cab driver, was waiting in a for-hire staging area in the airport parking lot last week. New mandates on Uber and Lyft might help taxi drivers, but it is really intended to get some of the fees the airport is losing, Shuriye said.
“I don’t know, it is good for the airport,” he said.
Most U.S. state laws to regulate ride-sharing companies are similar to those in Maine, said Todd Hansen, an assistant research scientist at Texas A&M University Transportation Institute.
Even where state law pre-empted local regulations, exceptions have been carved out for airports because of the volume of traffic and activity ride-sharing directed to them, Hansen said. A 2017 study from the institute identified 23 states that have approved airport regulations.
“States recognize that airport authorities need some level of entry requirements for vehicles,” he said.