As he prepares to leave office next month, Governor Deval Patrick is making a last-minute push to provide state oversight of Uber and Lyft, the popular ride-sharing services that have faced complaints that they are not subject to the same regulations as traditional taxis.
The governor’s aim is to allow the companies to continue to grow while requiring them to follow basic insurance and driving standards. Uber and Lyft applauded the governor’s plan, but taxi representatives blasted it, saying it would do little to increase safety or consumer protections.
Uber’s efforts to fend off what the company considers onerous regulations nationwide are led by David Plouffe, President Obama’s campaign manager in 2008, who also worked as a strategist on Patrick’s campaigns in 2006 and 2010.
In August, Patrick applauded Uber for hiring his former adviser as its senior vice president of policy and strategy, saying, “David Plouffe and Uber are a natural match.”
“From my insurgent campaign in 2006 and since, David has shown an interest in and an appetite for challenging established ways — and winning,” Patrick said in a statement on Uber’s website. “As we have seen in Boston, one of its first cities, so has Uber. I wish them both well.”
Patrick aides said their efforts to provide a legal framework for Uber and other ride-sharing firms began before Plouffe’s hiring. Jesse Mermell, a Patrick spokeswoman, said the governor never spoke to Plouffe about Uber rules.
“The Patrick administration is committed to ensuring the public safety and at the same time supporting innovation in transportation,” said Mary-Leah Assad, another administration spokeswoman. “We are diligently making progress on issues related to ride shares and will be working hard on this front through the inauguration.”
While Patrick is moving to support Uber, other municipalities have moved against the service in recent days.
On Monday, the city of Portland, Ore., sued the company, accusing it of operating an “illegal, unregulated transportation service.” On Tuesday, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles County also sued Uber, accusing the firm of making false statements to consumers and engaging in a variety of business practices that violate California law.
Under Patrick’s proposal, the state Department of Public Utilities, which regulates bus companies like Peter Pan, would be granted the power to regulate ride-sharing companies.
His plan would also require the firms to obtain certificates to operate, to maintain liability insurance, and to check the criminal backgrounds of their drivers. The drivers would have to be at least 21, and have valid driver’s licenses and proof of personal motor vehicle insurance. They would not be allowed to pick up passengers hailing cabs, only those that order a ride through the firms’ smartphone apps.
Administration officials say the governor plans to make those regulatory changes unilaterally by issuing new Registry of Motor Vehicles rules. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is scheduled to hold a hearing on the new requirements on Dec. 31, just eight days before the governor leaves office.
But those rules, even if approved before Patrick departs, will not take effect until the Legislature grants the Department of Public Utilities the power to oversee the industry. That will require a change in a state law, Patrick administration officials said. The governor is drafting a bill to empower the department, but his office would not say when it would be filed. It would be very unlikely to pass in the waning days of his administration. Lawmakers currently are meeting only infrequently in informal sessions designed to address routine matters, not controversial bills.
If the regulations pass but Patrick’s bill gets stuck in the Legislature, administration officials envision Uber and other ride-sharing companies receiving temporary notices from the Department of Public Utilities, allowing them to continue to operate until formal oversight can be put in place.
A spokesman for Governor-elect Charlie Baker, who takes over in January, declined to comment on Patrick’s proposal.
Meghan Joyce, general manager of Uber Boston, released a statement on Tuesday welcoming the governor’s plans.
“We applaud Governor Patrick and the administration for taking this step forward in formally recognizing ride-sharing as a new and valuable transportation alternative in the state of Massachusetts,” she said. A Lyft spokeswoman said the company appreciated Patrick’s “recognition that new rules are needed for ride-sharing.”
Donna Blythe-Shaw, a United Steelworkers official who represents 1,400 taxi drivers in Boston, criticized the proposal as “watered-down regulations” that would have no major impact on an industry she argues is operating illegally.
“I find these regulations to be too little, too late,” she said. “It’s not going to make the cars any safer, the drivers any more vetted, the service any safer. It’s not going to protect the consumers.”
She and other taxi industry representatives said the governor’s proposed rules are an acknowledgment that the companies should be stopped because they are operating in violation of state regulations.
“It’s unfortunate that the administration, with knowledge that these companies have been operating illegally, has allowed them to do so,” said Steve Regan, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Regional Taxi Advocacy Group. “We think this effort at the 12th hour to create regulations to legalize an otherwise illicit operation is not in the best interests of the citizens of Massachusetts.”