Can OC Enforce New Uber Regs? Officials Worried About Keeping Level Playing Field For Taxi Industry

OCEAN CITY — As Uber grows in popularity in the resort, so too are the number of questions city officials have about what state laws allow in regards to enforcing these app-based ride sharing services, also known as Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s).

Several elected officials, including Mayor Rick Meehan, Councilmen Dennis Dare, Doug Cymek and Lloyd Martin and State Senator Jim Mathias (D-District 38) met with representatives of the Maryland Public Service Commission on Tuesday to find out how to properly enforce recently passed regulations for TNC’s like Uber and Lyft.

If the informational meeting was any indication, it appears while the regulations may be “black and white,” as per the PSC, many still believe those regulations allow companies like Uber to operate in a bit of a ‘gray area.”

“There’s been a lot of confusion down here in Ocean City since Uber came to town,” said Cymek. “We just want to know what we can cite people for and what we can’t, and quite candidly, it seems that some of the TNC’s are almost outnumbering our taxis in Ocean City. We are seeing a lot of out of state tags, and we want to know if that is permissible.”

Andrew Johnston, director of the Government Affairs and Assistant General Counsel for the PSC, outlined to the panel, which also included City Solicitor Guy Ayres, Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro and several other members of the OCPD, that Uber drivers must first obtain a Maryland PSC license before operating anywhere in the state, and noted that TNC’s like Uber are now deemed to be “common carriers” that provide for-hire services, similar to sedans or limousines.

“That is pretty unique to Maryland,” said Johnston. “Most states don’t view these TNC’s that way.”

Johnston spoke about the three-year legislative battle between parties who wanted to prohibit TNC’s like Uber and Lyft from operating in the state and those same companies who didn’t want to be regulated by the state at all. In 2015, legislation (Senate Bill 868) was passed, after failing the prior year, which forced TNC’s to license their drivers as well as operate like other traditional companies that were subjected to things like background checks and accountability for their services, such as rate disclosures.

“The regulatory scheme in place is the most stringent in the Mid-Atlantic region, and they are the toughest of any statewide authority in the nation,” said Johnston. “TNC’s are now regulated statewide, similar to sedans and limousines so that means they have to pay assessments both to us, and to you.”

Ocean City receives a quarter for each fare picked up by an Uber driver, and last year, the reported total from Uber to the Town of Ocean City was approximately just $1,200.

Ralph DeAngelus, who has the second most taxi medallions in the resort as owner of Taxi Taxi and Shuttle Shuttle, believes that aforementioned figure Uber is paying to the city is vastly understated and should be much higher.

“In the month of July alone last year, we picked up 6,000 fares and we have only 28 medallions,” said DeAngelus. “The problem is that the law doesn’t require Uber to share their information with anyone so the city or any of us will never know what they are actually bringing in. It’s not a fair playing field based on how the law is written.”

While true data sharing, or lack thereof, is a major point of contention from traditional taxi companies and some city officials, there was even more concern levied at the fact that the PSC admitted to fast-tracking almost 200 Uber driver applications for drivers who wanted to operate in and around the Ocean City area this summer. Yet, while that number will inevitably double the amount of vehicles transporting tourists and locals around the resort this summer, many of those drivers will be operating under a temporary or provisional license while the PSC is processing their license request.

“When we revamped the taxi industry a few years ago, we set the number at 160 total medallions because that’s what we believed was the sufficient number to suit the need,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Two hundred new drivers, in our view, well surpasses the need.”

TNC’s like Uber must report information to the PSC but the body is not allowed to publicly release that information to anyone, including law enforcement.

That fact visibly frustrated Buzzuro.

“There is a bit of ambiguity in the law,” he said. “Right now, we have to file a complaint with the PSC if we find that a person is driving an Uber car without a license, but what can we do to enforce this law? Do they need to have a local business license, for instance?”

Johnston said the Town of Ocean City could be well within its rights to require Uber drivers to have a business license, but noted that while TNC’s are considered “common carriers,” they still are only lawfully allowed to operate in the realm of cyberspace via the phone based app, rather than traditional means of street hailing a cab or calling for a pickup.

“Everything has to be on the app,” said Johnston, “and if they don’t have a PSC license, they shouldn’t be visible on the app to pick people up.”

Yet, Buzzuro worried aloud that his officers couldn’t enforce the law “at the car” during a traffic stop and was joined by others in the room who wondered if the length of time to levy a complaint with the PSC would not work in the short crush of summer population in regards to the law thwarting people from violating the provisions in the regulation.

City Solicitor Guy Ayres took that sentiment a step further, challenging the PSC officials about his belief for a need for a misdemeanor charge to not only empower police officials with enforcement options, but to also share information in a more suitable fashion.

“I don’t think [the regulations] provide the protection the town needs to enforce the regulations the commission has passed,” Ayres said.

However, in a conversation with OCPD Capt. Kevin Kirstein after the meeting, he said the department was given guidance and credence to cite violators of the law based on Title 13, which empower local law enforcement agencies to write municipal infractions in addition to the complaint filed to the PSC about the unlicensed drivers.”

“Title 13 basically says that we can cite drivers locally for municipal infractions and violations of our own local laws,” said Kirstein. “So, if we see an Uber driver picking up a person in the bus lane [which is illegal for all transportation companies and traditional taxis] we could penalize them with a $100 fine or we could fine them for driving without a taxi medallion or license.”

Several councilmembers shared intelligence with the PSC representatives about reported incidents in Ocean City in recent weeks where Uber drivers have been seen waiting in traditional cab stand lines at popular nightclubs in the resort and essentially “trolling” for street fares.

“We licensed the taxis in order to clean up the industry,” said Dare, referring to the medallion system that the city instilled in 2010. “Now it seems we’ve taken a giant step backwards.”

While the consensus in the room was that Uber and other TNC’s are certainly here to stay, the challenge for lawmakers at the state level and law enforcement officials on the local level is to try and keep the playing field as level as possible, even though the game as a whole has inevitably changed.

“We are going to put the word out there that all Uber drivers need to be flying the Uber flag and having a PSC license to operate in the state of Maryland,” said Kirstein. “But, it is tough to enforce when we have access to all the taxi driver and business records, and we have none of that when it comes to Uber or other TNC’s.”

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.