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Legislation on Web-based ride-sharing likely

ANNAPOLIS — A Maryland lawmaker says the Legislature and not the state Public Service Commission should come up with policies to regulate Web-based ride-sharing services like Uber, after the PSC ruled this week that such companies should be treated the same way that tax-cab companies are.

Sen. Bill Ferguson and Del. Ben Barnes, who pushed unsuccessfully for measures to address the issue, said Friday they believe the issue will likely come before the Legislature again next year. They say they are concerned that using old forms of regulation on these new business models could harm their ability to flourish, as more people are starting to use them.

“I’m hopeful that (officials) focus on the importance of innovation in Maryland and that there are legislators willing to enact policy in partnership, but we want to make sure that happens in the Legislature — not through an executive regulatory body,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

“I think we need regulation that provides for safety requirements but allows them to exist given the dynamic of each of their individual business models,” said Barnes, D-Prince George’s.

The Maryland PSC ruled Wednesday that Uber Technologies Inc. is a common carrier, subject to the same regulations as all other passenger-for-hire services such as cab companies. Maryland is the first state to categorize Uber as a common carrier. Uber connects drivers with passengers using a smartphone application.

Uber has been operating in Maryland since January 2013. The company contends it should not be subject to regulation under the PSC because of its status as a technology company. Uber also says it only arranges rides between freelance drivers and passengers and does not directly operate a fleet of cars.

William Ferguson

Maryland State Sen. William “Bill” Ferguson (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Ferguson said he has heard from many constituents who are fond of the services in Baltimore. He said he thinks the state needs to make sure these transit options are able to thrive. He questioned whether the PSC is “sort of forcing a square peg into a round hole” by relying on old court cases to justify its regulatory role over new services that are developing with new technology.

Ferguson said what happens next will depend on developments over the next 90 days, now that regulators have started conversations about what the regulations will be.

In the last legislative session, both lawmakers sponsored bills that would have created some safety requirements for Uber such as vehicle inspections, background checks and insurance of up to $1 million — but not the same regulations as a taxi cab company. The measures did not pass out of legislative committees.

The PSC’s order only applies to Uber Black and Uber SUV. Uber Black makes use of professional drivers using town cars. Uber SUV enables users to hail an SUV.

UberX, a program that connects passengers seeking rides with drivers operating their personal vehicles, is exempt. Lyft, a ride-sharing company that functions in a similar capacity, also is exempt. However, those companies are not immune to scrutiny. The People’s Counsel, an independent consumer watchdog, has asked the PSC to look into the licensing practices of UberX and Lyft.