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Cuomo pushes for ride-sharing services outside NYC

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers the second of six State of the State addresses in Buffalo Monday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing that New York state allow ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft throughout the entire state.

The ride-sharing services have been trying unsuccessfully to expand to areas outside of New York City. Upstate and parts of Long Island are among the last places in the country not to have access to companies like Uber and Lyft.

Cuomo, in a State of the State speech in Buffalo, said that it’s time that changed, calling it an “unfair duality.”

“If it makes sense for downstate, it makes sense for upstate,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he believes the ride-sharing services could create thousands of jobs, cut down on drunken driving and even boost tourism and attract more business and gatherings to upstate New York.

Under the proposal, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles would license and regulate the drivers, and the companies would be required to buy insurance that provides up to $1 million coverage for drivers and passengers if there’s an accident. Drivers also would be eligible for workers’ compensation.

Uber spokesman Josh Gold is relieved that the idea might finally have traction.

“Thank you, Gov. Cuomo, for listening to the voices of New Yorkers who are demanding affordable, reliable transportation options like Uber,” Gold said. “It’s time for the Empire State to join New York City and the 47 other states in allowing ride-sharing services to operate.”

Adrian Durbin, director of policy communications at Lyft, said the company “applauds” Cuomo’s proposal.

The plan also drew positive response from restaurant owners, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the owner of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres.

Taxi companies have the most to lose if the services are permitted.

John Tomassi, president of the Upstate Transportation Association, said his group is not against Uber and Lyft, though, and he can even see instances where the additional services are needed, like when a big convention center event lets out.

“They don’t have the luxury of having a surge of drivers just for a four-hour period,” said Tomassi, who said there are insurance payments and medallion purchases, and those costs add up. “They’re not going to have 10 or 15 extra vehicles sitting around just to take care of some occasional peak demands.”

But Tomassi said ride-sharing service drivers should be subject to some of the same regulations that taxi drivers are, which he said are designed for public safety. He said Uber and Lyft drivers should be fingerprinted, and in some cases, undergo police background checks, just like taxi drivers. He said it’s already required in New York City.

“We’re saying why should it be any less for the people upstate?” Tomassi asked.

Gold, with Uber, argued that fingerprinting does not necessarily guarantee safety and has been shown to be unreliable.

“We believe in background checks,” said Gold, who said Uber searches national, state and local databases, including sex offender registries.

Cuomo’s plan seems to side with Uber and Lyft, requiring background checks but not fingerprinting.

Some state lawmakers also have voiced objections. They want New York’s disabled people to have ready access to the car services. Gold said while that might not happen immediately, it has evolved in other regions where the services have been up and running for a couple of years.

He said Uber does not own the cars drivers use, and so has to convince drivers to invest in specialized vans or other vehicles to pick up passengers with mobility issues.

The state Legislature will have to give final approval to allowing the ride-sharing services. Several bills are circulating, but there’s no agreement yet on any one measure.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.