OCEAN CITY — Since the first Ocean City Uber vehicle appeared on the app-based ride service last May, there has been an ongoing debate about how or if Uber should be held to the same standards as traditional taxi cabs.
Last week, the Maryland Public Service Commission met with resort officials to try and explain how the city could enforce state regulations that focus on Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. While state regulations do consider TNC’s “common carriers,” the state also requires drivers to obtain a PSC license before working for Uber. In addition, local law enforcement agencies were assured that Title 13 of the law would allow local jurisdictions to enforce violations of local laws by Uber drivers in addition to the mandated complaint to the PSC about TNC vehicles that must be filed by the department.
Still, the main bit of concern that seems to be hanging in the balance is whether the rules and regulations will have any impact on what some in the taxi cab industry have called a “wild wild west” landscape on the city streets.
“What’s going to stop a guy from coming down to Ocean City from New Jersey or Pennsylvania and just turning on the app and picking people up in Ocean City all weekend?,” questioned Taxi Taxi owner Ralph DeAngelus. “They are coming into our town and just picking people up, making money that they take back to their own communities, and no one is stopping them.”
In last week’s meeting, there was a clear query by Ocean City Councilman Doug Cymek about whether an Uber driver would appear on the app if they didn’t have a PSC license to drive in Maryland.
Chris Koermer, director of the PSC’s Transportation Division, was adamant that if a driver hadn’t obtained a PSC license to operate in the state, that driver would not appear on the app.
However, in an effort to show the flaws in the system, DeAngelus logged two separate studies trying to determine if Uber drivers he met were in fact licensed with the PSC to operate in Maryland.
“I would simply strike up a conversation with them and act like I was interested in driving for Uber,” said DeAngelus. “I’d ask them how the money is, and how hard it is to become a driver, and all of that. But, when I asked them if they had to get a license with the state to drive for Uber, almost every single one of them looked at me with a blank stare like they had no clue what I was talking about.”
On May 18, well before the official start of the summer season, DeAngelus says he met eight Uber drivers in a two-hour period and none of them had PSC licenses to operate in the state.
“There were three drivers from Maryland, three from Delaware, one from Pennsylvania, and one from Virginia and while they had been cleared to drive for Uber, not one of them had a PSC license,” he said.
On the night of June 2, DeAngelus tried the experiment again, and he says the results were equally as alarming.
“I talked to 18 drivers and one of them had a PSC license,” said DeAngelus. “Six drivers from Delaware, five from Maryland, three from Pennsylvania, one from Washington DC, two from Virginia, and one from New Jersey, and do you know where the one driver was who had the PSC license? It was the guy from DC.”
Despite DeAngelus’ findings, Cymek says he believes the PSC’s claims that unlicensed drivers don’t show up on the app.
“Those unlicensed drivers are trolling the streets looking for fares,” said Cymek. “I observed a number of them sitting across from Seacrets nightclub in the Ocean Pines Beach Club parking lot and at the gas station on 52nd Street.”
DeAngelus estimates that for every Uber car you see on the app, there is at least one or two that you don’t.
“No one in the taxi industry is opposed to competition. I want that to be very clear,” he said. “What we are asking for is enforcement. To get a PSC license is a push-up. It takes effort. If you tell someone not to rob a bank because it’s against the law, but then you don’t punish them when they break that law, why wouldn’t they rob the bank? It’s the same thing with these licenses.”
However, Cymek says that may not be the only rub in finding resolution to this debate.
“I’m very much in belief that Uber’s numbers that they are reporting to us are vastly understated [roughly $1,200 paid last year to the town based on a quarter for every ride],” said Cymek. “If the numbers that Uber is quoting us for last year are in fact true, I believe we have a much larger problem with unlicensed Uber drivers operating in the resort that I think we imagined.”
Cymek said the city will be closely monitoring the impact of more than 200 Uber drivers the PSC says it fast-tracked for this summer season.
“They more than doubled our entire taxi industry that holds medallions without even talking to us first,” said Cymek.
Still, Cymek said, “I am confident that we’ll be upping enforcement in a big way in early July.”