Ride-sharing compromise may be near in New Mexico

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT: Ride-sharing companies use apps from smartphones to attract customers looking to catch a ride.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ride-sharing companies and New Mexico regulators have been locked in a standoff for months, but a potential compromise could come in the space of a couple of weeks.

On Wednesday, the Public Regulation Commission directed its staff to work out a proposal to make rules that would allow companies such as Lyft and Uber to operate in the state as “specialized passenger services.”

“I do believe the commission would have to be careful to craft a rule, but can do it and have authority,” PRC transportation division director Ryan Jerman told the five commissioners, who then directed the staff to come up with language by July 23.

The ride-sharing companies, operating out of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, have been at odds with the PRC over whether or not they should be licensed and considered like taxi cab services and, therefore, be regulated under the state’s Motor Carrier Act.

Ride-sharing works by allowing customers to download a free smartphone app, which they use to request a ride. The app connects them to the nearest available driver and tracks the length of the trip in distance and time, calculates the cost and automatically transfers the fee from the user’s credit card (already entered into the app at the beginning of the process) to the driver’s account. No cash changes hands.

PRC chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar indicated during Wednesday’s hearing she would support creating a new rule for ride-sharing.

“I don’t think we can just shut the door on a new kind of business in New Mexico,” she said.

But commissioner Valerie Espinoza, who has said she believes Uber and Lyft are essentially no different from cab companies, said after the meeting she’s skeptical about creating new rules.

“The word ‘specialized’ is not defined,” Espinoza told New Mexico Watchdog. “That’s a legislative fix. You’re going to have everybody come up” and want to be classified as specialized “and it’s going to be a free for all. Our job is to protect the safety of all consumers in the state.”

The PRC filed a cease and desist order on Lyft on May 23, but the company has still been operating while not charging customers. On Wednesday, commissioners refused to withdraw the cease and desist order. Uber is also still operating despite not being licensed by the PRC.

Commissioner Ben Hall brought up the idea of having the state’s Department of Public Safety pull over and issue fines to the drivers of ride-sharing companies. “If you don’t want to be legal, go somewhere else,” Hall said.

A PRC attorney said a meeting with the general counsel at DPS is in the works.

Despite his criticism of Uber and Lyft, Hall told New Mexico Watchdog he’ll keep an open mind when it comes to crafting a possible new rule for ride-sharing.

“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it may be a duck,” Hall said.

Commissioner Pat Lyons, who has said he wants to spur business in the state, hopes the meeting July 23 can resolve the issue. “I’m always trying to get government to move faster,” he said.

“We need to act quickly on this,” said commissioner Karen Montoya.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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