Will car-service apps Uber and Lyft be allowed to operate permanently and unregulated in Rhode Island? At this pace the state may never know.
More than two years after Ocean State lawmakers authorized tighter restrictions on car services and nine months after regulators used that authority to create a $40 per-ride minimum that some suggested would kill “ride-sharing” apps, uncertainty reigns.
Regulators and Uber acknowledge that the $40 minimum, if implemented, would only apply to commercially licensed vehicles, affecting the professional drivers the California software company had initially been working with here, but not amateurs.
And since then, Lyft, which only operates with noncommercial drivers using their personal vehicles, has launched in Providence and declared that the $40 minimum would definitely have no impact on it.
If that’s the case, then it is unclear whether the $40 minimum would achieve its stated goal of protecting regulated taxi cabs from unregulated competition.
At best, it could force the licensed car-service drivers now using Uber to decertify themselves, or hand a competitive advantage to Lyft.
Maybe that’s why the $40 minimum remains on the shelf.
Responding to appeals from several car-service companies and later Uber, the R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers in November suspended the $40 minimum ride rule in order to hear testimony on alternatives. That hearing took place in April, but nothing has emerged from the agency since.
Then in June, state lawmakers created a study committee to examine car-service regulations in the context of new technology and make recommendations on how they should be treated.
The law does not say anything about suspending the $40 minimum ride while the committee meets.
But Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett said he understood that the $40 minimum would remain on ice pending a recommendation by the study committee, which includes a seat for the Division of Public Utilities’ administrator, now Thomas F. Ahern.
Division spokesman Thomas Kogut, however, disputed that the study committee would have any impact on a price-floor ruling.
“They are kind of separate things,” Kogut said. “My understanding is on the legislative side you have a joint resolution to look at a broad range of motor-carrier-for-hire issues and separately you have a division proceeding to look at one pending aspect of rulemaking.”