OCEAN CITY — Even though the local taxi industry is not thrilled about it, even the most vehement detractors of the ride-hailing service Uber concede that it’s here to stay in Ocean City.
“This will be the second year that they are here, and we know they aren’t going to do anything but ramp up their operations,” said Ralph DeAngelus, owner of Taxi Taxi. “All we can do is make sure that we do our job as best we can and provide the best service to our customers at the best price.”
Yet, some in the taxi industry believe new regulations passed down by the Maryland Public Service Commission (MPSC) could help level the proverbial playing field, helping to alleviate the claim that companies like Uber are not held to the same standards of operation and regulation as they are.
In an April 11 letter from the transportation division of the MPSC, changes were made to COMAR 20.95.01 to align regulations and statutes passed during the 2015 legislative session in Senate bill 868.
The letter states that the changes are to “streamline and modernize outdated regulations.”
This will, at least on a small level, add some regulations that Uber drivers must follow and give police officials the language to easily enforce it, especially when it comes to one contentious issue local cab companies have with Uber.
“Most of the UBER vehicles in our area are from out of state with no vested interest in the Ocean City community,” said Carl Kufchak, owner of Ocean City Taxi.
Kufchak, whose 32 taxi medallions are the most in Ocean City, with DeAngelus’ Taxi Taxi just behind at 29 medallions, says police officers had no way to stop out-of-state drivers from coming into the resort and picking up fares last season.
These new regulations require all Uber drivers to be registered to drive in the state of Maryland by the MPSC, which could help alleviate the out of town drivers from coming into the local market.
“Uber does what it wants,” says Kufchak. “We are regulated by city ordinance. Taxi drivers in Ocean City are highly regulated for drug screening, driving records, finger prints and subjected to random drug screening that needs to be done within 24 hours. Uber does not have to do that. You can already see a flood of drivers this season already.”
One of those local drivers is Shawn Kotwica. The local Realtor by day started as an Uber driver last season as a way to supplement his income at night.
“I don’t drink so it’s an easy way to make a few hundred extra dollars a week,” he said. “On busy weekends last summer, there were 50 or so Uber drivers in Ocean City, and many of them had out-of-state plates.”
Yet, Senate Bill 868 did set some standard concerning background checks and vehicle registration for Uber drivers, and this session, Senate Bill 54 and House Bill 3 could provide more. These bills will require Uber drivers, often referred to as transportation network companies, to go through a similar background check that limo drivers must go through, including a criminal history, driving record and a sex offender search in addition to the PSC license. Governor Larry Hogan will be presented with Senate Bill 54 as an emergency bill and could sign it in the coming weeks.
Either way, Kufchak believes Uber’s presence in the resort is not a huge problem or a threat from a business perspective for the taxi industry, but he believes the consumer is actually the one getting the raw deal.
“They can charge outrageous rates with their surge pricing,” said Kufchak. “Some people will pay three, or four, or five times the taxi rates, and all that does is hurt the consumer. Our taxi rates are fixed and established by the city and Uber charges are based on demand and they fluctuate greatly. Our prices cannot and should not be raised.”
Yet, while surge pricing is a red flag to some consumers, the general perception about Uber is that it’s easy and it’s cheap.
Regardless of the merits in the perceptions on the taxi industry and transportation network operators like Uber, DeAngelus realizes these new regulations will be a moot point if they aren’t enforced.
“Now that some of these rules are enforceable, it makes a giant bit of difference as long as someone actually enforces them,” he said. “If 200 drivers come down from New Jersey and Delaware and Pennsylvania to drive for Uber, and a cop doesn’t pull them over when they see that big ‘U’ sticker on their car to make sure they have a Maryland PSC license, it doesn’t do me any good that these new rules kicked in. This has to be enforced by our local officials.”
According to Michelle Monico, the OCPD’s records section manager and taxi program coordinator, it could be difficult for local police to enforce the PSC license.
“It is also possible to issue a traffic ticket for violating TA 13-423.A; which is a $70 fine to them if they do not have a PSC TNO permit,” said Monico in an email statement, “but there is no actual card that the drivers carry to show proof. They will only have a number that they will tell the officer. And, the PSC cannot verify whether a person has a permit unless there is a court order issued. So, this may be difficult for us to enforce locally.”