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RIDE-SHARING IN AUBURN?

Uber, other ride-sharing companies want to come to upstate NY, but how about Auburn?

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If you're in Auburn, Maine or Auburn, Washington, you can find an Uber driver and get around using the ride-sharing service.

In Auburn, New York, that option isn't available. Yet. 

"History's Hometown" isn't alone. In other upstate New York cities, from Albany to Buffalo, you won't find Uber drivers. Other ride-sharing companies, such as Lyft, aren't operating there either. 

That could change in 2017 if legislation is approved by the state Assembly and Senate. Uber is pushing for passage of a bill that would revise the state's insurance law and allow it to operate in Auburn, Syracuse and other upstate cities. 

It sounds so simple. You change the law and the companies can set up shop in these cities. But like any other issue in Albany, it's subject to much scrutiny — and outspoken opposition. 


WHAT IS RIDE-SHARING?

One thing ride-sharing isn't is your traditional taxi service. 

With taxis, you can call or hail a cab. Some taxi companies have apps or online portals you can use to set up rides. 

To catch an Uber, the most prominent ride-sharing service, you need to access the company's mobile app. 

Through the app, you can set up a ride, see who the driver is, what type of car they have and track their location. No cash is exchanged. You set up your payment through the app and that's how the transaction is completed. 

The drivers use their own cars and tend to work for Uber as a second job. Under the "Drive With Uber" section of the company's app, you can learn more about driving opportunities. "Earn money in your spare time," the section reads. "Drive when you want, earn what you need," says one slide. 

Critics note that this is what separates Uber and other ride-sharing companies from taxi services. While Uber appeals to prospective drivers as a part-time job opportunity, taxi drivers tend to work longer hours and the job is their main source of income. 

Currently, Uber is available in most major U.S. cities — including New York City. The company is able to operate there because it's regulated as a black car service. That option isn't available statewide, though. That's why the insurance changes are needed. 


THE HURDLE

What's preventing Uber, Lyft and other companies from operating in upstate New York is the state's insurance law. 

Uber has a commercial insurance policy which covers each of its drivers to up to $1 million. When the drivers, who use their personal vehicles, turn on the app and accept rides, the commercial insurance policy would take effect. 

The problem? New York currently doesn't allow this type of group insurance policy. 

State Sen. Jim Seward, who chairs the state Senate Insurance Committee, said he first had discussions about the issue in 2014. Last year, legislation was introduced. 

It wasn't until November 2015 that the push for ride-sharing in New York gained momentum. Seward, R-Milford, said a roundtable discussion with several stakeholders — representatives from Uber, the taxi industry, local government officials and insurance companies — was held in Albany. 

Seward is the sponsor of the bill that would make the necessary changes to the state's insurance law. He said the measure is based on a model agreed to by the insurance companies and the ride-sharing operators. He said that model is being used in at least 35 other states. 

"It's very important to have the proper insurance in place because under this business model with these (ride-sharing companies), it's basically personal automobiles that people use when they have the vehicle and some extra time and they can sign up with one of these (companies)," he said. 

It appeared Seward's legislation, which was carried in the Assembly by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, was going to pass during the 2016 legislative session. But some changes were made to the Assembly's bill that led to a stalemate. 

The amendments, according to Seward, included increasing the required insurance coverage up to $300,000 for when the app is turned on and to $1.5 million for when a rider is in the vehicle. 

The changes concerned Seward, who said he heard from Uber and other companies that this would drive up costs to operate in upstate New York. 

"It just made it economically not feasible," he said. "What's working well in 35 other states I would like to bring to New York in terms of the insurance coverage. (The Assembly) upped the numbers so dramatically. That was a deal-killer here for this year." 

Josh Gold, a policy adviser for Uber, blamed Albany dysfunction for why the legislation wasn't adopted this year. 

He cited the results of a Siena Research Institute poll which found 70 percent of New Yorkers support legislation that would allow Uber and other ride-sharing companies to operate in upstate. 

Among upstate voters, 65 percent support ride-sharing. Only 19 percent said they oppose it. 

"All across upstate, we have this large amount of support and it's unfortunate that Albany hasn't acted yet to give us the ability to buy that insurance so that we can operate," Gold said. 


UBER IN AUBURN?

Ride-sharing companies have set up shop in major cities throughout the United States. But you can find Uber drivers in some smaller cities, too. 

Case in point: Summit, New Jersey. 

Amy Cairns, Summit's public information officer, said Uber launched a promotion in the city offering $5 rides during the holiday season. The rides were subsidized by the city and encouraged people to visit the downtown area, Cairns said. 

"It was really successful," she said. "People loved it." 

The city of 21,457 is now exploring how Uber can help address its parking problem. 

Cairns said Summit, which is located roughly 25 miles west of New York City, is densely populated. One of the issues facing local residents is parking. A passenger train runs through the city and a station is located there. Commuters who live outside of Summit will drive into the city, park there for the day and ride the train into New York City. 

By partnering with Uber, Summit hopes to address this problem. 

"For what it costs you to park, you could be picked up at your front door and dropped off in front of the train station," Cairns said. "We free up those spaces for maybe employees that work in Summit." 

In upstate New York, ride-sharing companies want to establish operations in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. They also want to expand into smaller markets, such as Auburn, Binghamton and Ithaca. 

Auburn does have two companies operating three taxi services, but Mayor Michael Quill thinks ride-sharing could be a good alternative for those in need of transportation. 

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"I think competition in any market is good because the consumer usually wins from the competition," he said. "I would probably go for it. I think I'd be interested in looking at it and moving forward with it." 

Quill, a voting member on the Syracuse Regional Airport Authority, said ride-sharing has been raised by the panel during meetings. One of the challenges he wants to address is how travelers can get from Syracuse Hancock International Airport to Auburn. 

It's also a problem the tourism industry is trying to tackle. 

Meg Vanek, executive director of the Cayuga County Office of Tourism, said the cost of transportation between Auburn and Syracuse is also an issue. Uber and ride-sharing, she said, could be a "fairly inexpensive" alternative if it's permitted. 

"It would give them another option because this transportation issue for all of us in the rural areas of the Finger Lakes," she said. "It's really a big issue that nobody has been able to solve." 

Vanek said she used Uber when visiting Philadelphia and Washington D.C. She gave a positive review of her experiences. The drivers were friendly, she said, and the vehicles were clean. 

"They came on time, they picked you up, dropped you off," she said. "It's all trackable. It was a much better experience than I thought it was going to be." 

Seward, too, has used Uber before. He was with Assemblyman Will Barclay, an Oswego County Republican, in Charleston, South Carolina. Barclay launched the Uber app and got a ride for the legislators. 

"It was seamless and very easy to use," Seward recalled. "It's just another option for people and I'd like to bring that business model to our communities."


THE TAXIS

While local officials are hopeful that Uber will be able to operate here, Auburn does have transportation options available for those without vehicles of their own. 

There are three taxi services — Any, Deluxe and Total Taxi — licensed to operate in the city. The Auburn Police Department is tasked with enforcing the city's taxicab ordinance, which regulates the cab companies. 

The city's ordinance requires cabs to be "regularly cleaned and maintained in such a manner as to render adequate and proper public service." The vehicles are also required to be in good mechanical shape. Small dents or scratches are fine, but more significant damage — such as a dangling bumper — must be fixed. 

Taxi drivers are subject to strict guidelines. Each applicant must have a New York chauffeur's license, be at least 18 years old and must not be addicted to drugs or alcohol. They also must be "neat in dress and person," according to the ordinance. 

Once the application is received, the police department conducts a background check. 

In 2015, APD received 52 taxicab driver applications and 12 were denied. So far in 2016, there have been 35 applicants and eight denied. 

Auburn Police Chief Shawn Butler supports allowing Uber and other ride-sharing companies commence operations in the city — as long as they abide by the rules and regulations. 

If the state adopts legislation to address the insurance issues, it will be left to local municipalities to regulate ride-sharing in a similar manner as taxis. 

Officer Greg Gilfus, the department's traffic coordinator, said there will be a learning curve. Dealing with individual drivers will be more challenging than dealing with a taxicab company which has a physical headquarters in the city. 

Butler added that they would look to avoid "growing pains" by seeking out advice from other law enforcement agencies. 

"We would reach out to other departments similar to our size," he said. 

Butler, like Seward and Vanek, has used Uber before. He said he used Uber during trips to Louisville, Kentucky and Columbus, Ohio. 

"It gives the consumer different options," he said. "To me, I think the more options the better. The wider the range of choices the better." 

He conceded, though, that there would be backlash from the local taxi companies. He said it boils down to one word: competition. 

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a group that mostly represents cab drivers in New York City, has been one of the most outspoken opponents of allowing ride-sharing in the state. One of the alliance's claims is that Uber drivers earn less than minimum wage and have to work on multiple apps — Lyft, among others — to make full-time pay. 

Locally, there's some concern about the impact of ride-sharing on taxi companies.

Amy Giovannetti, a manager for Total Taxi, thinks Auburn is "pretty small" for Uber. She believes the company would focus more on bigger cities, such as Syracuse. 

But she does wonder how ride-sharing would affect existing taxi service, especially her own business. 

"I would hope if they came to town that it wouldn't be something that would affect us," she said. "But at the same time, it is nerve-wracking when any business comes to town and wants to open a taxi company. Auburn is really small for us to have three, four or five separate taxi companies." 

Giovannetti doesn't think she would lose drivers to Uber, mainly because her most of her employees don't have their own vehicles to use for ride-sharing purposes. 

She also doesn't believe ride-sharing will affect the company's customer base. Most of their customers, she said, don't use smartphones. To access Uber, you can use the company's app or its mobile website. 

Kim Moore, a driver who's worked for Total Taxi for two years, is concerned that the company could be put out of business by Uber and other companies. 

"I heard about them and I'm not too fond of them," she said. "I haven't used them before. I've heard things about them. We're a cab company, but we know our customers — and they know us." 


WHAT'S NEXT? 

For now, Uber waits. 

Since the state legislative session ended without an agreement on the insurance bill, they must wait until the 2017 session to push for passage of the measure. 

Uber's Josh Gold called upstate New York "the final frontier" for the company, which has set up operations in — of all places — Kazakhstan. 

Legislators aren't in Albany at the moment, but Gold said Uber's lobbying effort hasn't stopped. 

"We're going to do what it takes to make sure that the coalition of New Yorkers who want this in their communities are heard over special interests in the Capitol," he said. 

Seward is optimistic an agreement can be reached next year. 

"There's a lot of consumer demand for this, but I've also heard from so many local officials — mayors, county executives — they want this business model in their communities," he said. "I'm hoping we can, in 2017, work out the differences here in a way that we can bring this model to cities (in upstate)." 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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