Billings taxi owners, others fight Lyft application

Lyft

Lyft Inc.

A collection of Lyft vehicles, all bearing the company’s original “grille-stache” logos, which have since been abandoned. The ride-sharing business is hoping to enter the Montana market.

In a tense and often clumsy hearing in Helena on Monday, a handful of taxi companies tried to convince the Montana Public Service Commission to deny an operating permit for a national rideshare company looking to expand to the state.

Members of the commission took nearly four hours of testimony from multiple parties regarding a request by Lyft Inc. to begin operating in Montana. The commission approved a similar application by Uber in late 2015, giving a reluctant nod to changing technology and the demands of the traveling public.

But that increased competition—coupled with what taxi owners suggest is a double standard between their traditional service and newer transportation network companies, or TNCs—set the stage for a tense hearing that left several taxi owners frustrated, including the owners of Billings Yellow Cab.

“We’ve been coming here for a long time trying to get authority through the years past, and we’re always turned down,” said Susan Young of Billings Yellow Cab. “Letting all these other companies come in here that have the authority to do anything, don’t have to be regulated, and only have a little insurance, it’s just so different. I’m not saying I’m not one for competition, but sometimes it’s just not on an even playing field.”

Carrie Pintar, owner of Amazing Taxi in Livingston, suggested that the lack of cellphone coverage in portions of Montana and its relation to transportation insurance requirements were reason enough to deny Lyft’s application under existing state law.

Pintar, who represented herself and other taxi services, also alleged a number of violations by other rideshare companies, including “rogue drivers” operating on their own and drivers working with their apps off.

“My concern is for our traveling public,” Pintar summarized. “A lot of them do not understand all the rules. People depend on the (PSC) to protect them and make sure they have a safe ride from whatever kind of ride they’re trying to get.”

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Yet throughout the hearing, Pintar had a difficult time making her argument and keeping it within the confines of the hearing. Attorneys representing Lyft objected to her line of questioning several times, prompting Pintar to grow frustrated.

“Are you trying to intimidate me—I’m not cowering,” Pintar said at one point. “The good-old-boy network has given me the glare.”

Timothy Burr, the senior public policy manage for Lyft, said that despite Pintar’s suggestions of problem drivers and other issues, the company had firm policies. Rogue drivers would be terminated if caught working outside the system, he said, and the company requires its drivers to carry insurance.

Lyft also provides coverage when its drivers are on the job, Burr added. That includes vehicle liability insurance in the amount of $50,000 during Period 1, or when the driver turns on the application and connects with the rider.

Once the ride begins, known as Period 2, Lyft provides primary insurance in the amount of $1 million. That continues through Period 3, or when the last passenger exits the vehicle.

“The way our policy is written, once (the app) is activated, (insurance) only stops when the last passenger exits the vehicle,” said Burr. “If cell service is lost, the insurance remains in place until that last passenger exits the vehicle.”

While their concerns were many, members of the taxi industry, including Vance Vanderpam and Mike Spreadbury, accused TNC drivers of parking in taxi zones at the airport and offering rides outside their company’s digital platform.

Facing growing competition, they also accused current rideshare programs of operating outside the confines of state law. Several taxi owners ridiculed members of the commission for blocking portions of Pintar’s arguments when they stepped beyond the scope of the hearing.

“This isn’t a courtroom, this is a public hearing,” said taxi owner Bob Young with Billings Yellow Cab. “Anything that could be brought forward in this hearing should be admissible to make a decent decision. I counted almost half the people in here are attorneys. Are you serious? You guys are a living joke.”

But several others spoke in support of Lyft, including Elanor Smith of Helena and Jessica Grennin of Missoula. For late-night bar patrons and early morning air travelers, TNC services have proved more reliable and convenient than traditional taxis, they said.

“I’ve used rideshare apps in Montana and outside of Montana, and I find it to be a very reliable source of transportation,” said Grennin. “I do the dreaded 6 a.m. flights out of Missoula. Having this as an option just provides better rides for business travelers and makes it accessible for someone like me to live in Montana.”

The Montana Legislature in 2015 adopted Senate Bill 396, which paved the way for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in the state, so long as they meet the insurance, bonding and security requirements.

A number of taxi owners suggested that Commissioner Travis Kavulla helped write the bill, and they asked the commission to force him to recuse himself from Monday’s hearing out of concerns he was biased.

That complaint emerged from nearly the opening statement and lasted throughout the morning.

“He helped write the Senate bill – he lobbied, he spoke at the legislation committee hearing supporting the bill and these TNCs,” said Pintar. “He’s been their biggest cheerleader. He’s a huge proponent. It’s a conflict of interest and he can’t be unbiased.”

Commissioners said Kavulla was safe to participate in the hearing.

“There’s longstanding tradition here of commissioners being involved in the legislative process and presiding over commission hearings related to the legislation,” said Chairman Brad Johnson.

The PSC expects to render a decision by Sept. 5.

This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.

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