BY MADELEINE MACCAR
Literature, myths, movies, and even history are peppered with so many David-and-Goliath tales that we’ve almost taken for granted that the underdog always comes out on top. No odds are too great, no foe is too tough, no obstacle is too insurmountable—right?
Unfortunately, as this industry has learned all too well, deep pockets, a nifty digital interface, and a total disregard for playing by the rules tend to stack the decks in the giant’s favor. But nothing worth doing is ever easy, and our industry has now spent years clawing its way across a wildly uneven playing field in a game where the goalposts are never in the same spot twice and progress often feels negligible at best and hopeless at worst.
But time, integrity, and countless legislative efforts are all on the side of traditional, law-abiding ground transportation operators—and while TNCs, especially the once seemingly untouchable powerhouse of Uber, suffer high-profile black eye after black eye, usually of their own doing.
If casual regulatory negligence; daily reports of drivers threatening, stalking, and assaulting passengers; unfair pricing structures; and a blatant disregard for passengers’ physical safety weren’t enough to finally dull the luster on a confoundingly popular service, it seems as though Uber’s recently revealed data breach (not the first!) was the final straw. Turns out that people who have no problem compromising their safety to save a few dollars do have a limit, and they draw the line at undermining the security of their data—and then covering it up for more than a year. It’s well-documented, however, that the public has a short attention span and shorter memory, and it’s certainly likely that today’s Uber boycotter is tomorrow’s give-’em-one-more-chance passenger.
It’s worth noting that, at press time, a number of states and cities have turned against Uber. California, Washington state, Florida, and even Chicago—a city where Uber was once an inarguable darling with a sound case for nepotism at the heart of such preferential treatment, given Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s fraternal ties to the company—are now all suing the TNC for its role in furtively concealing a hacking attack that stole 57 million drivers’ and passengers’ information, with multiple allegations that it also paid the hackers behind the attack a cool $100,000 in exchange for their silence.
At the same time that Uber’s pride has precipitated its current and abrupt fall from grace that also allows its number-one competitor Lyft to pick away at its crumbling empire, the ground transportation industry has seen limousine and taxi operators come together in an unprecedented show of professional solidarity. Livery associations, both regional and national, have ramped up efforts to deliver a harmonious message to elected officials across the country. The lessons here, of course, are threefold: There is strength in numbers, desperate times makes for strange bedfellows, and finding allies with common goals can bring about positive change.
While 2017 has had its shares of highs and lows, there are plenty of legislative wins to not only celebrate but also boost the momentum of the industry’s efforts into the new year. Here are a few of the biggest victories celebrated across the country in the past year, and why they bode well for the future of ground transportation in the country.
Twin Wins in New Jersey
The Garden State was home to some of 2017’s earliest wins that helped start the year with a celebratory bang. Being home to one of the biggest, most active regional associations in the industry has certainly proved beneficial, as the Limousine Association of New Jersey (LANJ)—whose member base includes operators and vendors from Pennsylvania and New York, and its recent push to extend memberships to affiliate operators has only bolstered its triple-digit numbers—has long been at the forefront of the battle against TNCs, first in pursuit of a level playing field and then rallying behind increased safety measures for the riding public’s sake. And after years of walking the halls in the state’s capitol buildings, working with lobbyists, tweaking their message, and making friends in the local government who were both willing to listen to LANJ’s pain points and supportive of the industry’s causes, February 10 saw those late nights and long hours pay off when Governor Chris Christie wrote two assembly bills into law.
The “Transportation Network Company Safety and Regulatory Act” (A-3695) was sponsored by three assemblymen—Joseph Lagana, Troy Singleton, and John Wisniewski—who worked closely with LANJ members to get the language and specifications just right to sufficiently protect TNC passengers. The bill established statewide standards for TNCs, including requirements regarding driver eligibility, insurance coverage, and records retention. The sponsors noted that the uniformity inherent in the legislation would stabilize the market for TNCs in New Jersey, effectively dispelling discrepancies in standards across different municipalities.
As the fight became more about wrestling TNCs into regulatory compliance and ensuring the safety of any motorist or passenger sharing the road with TNC drivers who are notoriously under-insured (if at all), forcing the likes of Uber and Lyft to abide by consistent, statewide safety standards quickly emerged as the real priority.
“New Jersey has no safety and insurance standards whatsoever to govern an industry that has the potential to affect all motorists—regardless of whether or not they have a direct affiliation with a transportation network company. I admire the modernization these companies bring to transportation, but that does not excuse them from an obligation to conduct business safely,” said Assemblyman Lagana after the bill was signed into law. He was one of LANJ’s biggest allies and has spoken at the association’s meetings about his support of their efforts. “Residents of our state who take advantage of ride-hailing services must be able to do so without compromising their own well-being or that of other drivers on the road.”
The provisions of A-3695 included verbiage about driver, vehicle, insurance, and company records as well as mandating general company operations. Of particular note are regulations that require all TNCs to secure a permit from the Motor Vehicle Commission, driving record and criminal background checks for all driver applicants, and a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy for all active drivers. Any vehicle in use must pass the state’s inspection standards, they agree to work with the state’s DOT for data collection, and that either the TNC itself or a driver must maintain a primary auto insurance policy from a recognized insurance provider while logged into the app or providing a ride. (Visit goo.gl/ERFygR to read the bill’s full text.)
LANJ’s activism also has been crucial in the passage of A-3696, a second assembly bill that eliminated the 7-percent sales tax on chauffeured ground transportation. New Jersey operators in both the limousine and taxi sectors have long voiced their displeasure over an unfair tax, and legislators agreed that it was an onerous burden. By removing the sales tax, operators have saved thousands of dollars, giving them the financial freedom to both maintain and turn over their fleets at a steadier pace—which means New Jersey’s passengers are being transported in better-maintained, later-model, and ultimately safer vehicles that have the potential to raise safety standards nationwide.
The Ripple Effect in Massachusetts Another one of the smallest states in the country was also the stage for one of the year’s biggest blows against TNCs—and another example of what an active, attentive association can do. Members of the New England Livery Association (NELA)—along with representatives from the taxicab industry—have been frequent visitors to and mainstays at Boston’s capitol buildings as they endeavored to get legislators’ ears and support for their cause.
In April, more than 8,200 of the 70,789 TNC drivers in The Bay State were disqualified from operation after failing the first-ever statewide background checks. (To put that number in perspective, a full 11 percent of Massachusetts’ TNC drivers were rejected from their various platforms after the state’s tightened regulations went into effect.) The background check nullified a startling volume of drivers based on examinations of both driving and criminal records that unearthed a worrisome proliferation of violence, drunken driving, suspended licenses, and sexual offenses that included 51 registered sex offenders—all red flags that would render an applicant beyond unfit for a chauffeur role with a responsible ground transportation operation.
While the regulations for Massachusetts’ TNC drivers have been among the strictest in the country since their adoption in 2016, the revised background checks are an additional measure that ensure the utmost safety for the state’s transportation passengers. And the state has such stringent regulations largely thanks to NELA members’ tireless lobbying for heightened measures to ensure the riding publics’ safety.
“This is a direct result of the legislation successfully passed last year in Massachusetts,” said NELA Executive Director Rick Szilagyi. “It’s thanks to everyone who has supported our legislative efforts both with time and money that we’re seeing these results, which are now encouraging other states to rethink their positions on letting the fox manage the hen house.”
Szilagyi is referring to the nearly instantaneous domino effect that followed Massachusetts’ dismissal of thousands of potentially dangerous drivers. Oregon, Virginia, and Colorado were among those that questioned the efficiency of TNCs’ own private background checks and the caliber of drivers the companies hastily ushered onto the roads. And in Texas, where Austin’s refusal to relent to TNCs’ demands of revoking its fingerprint background check mandate drove Lyft and Uber out of the city proper in 2016, officials were left feeling validated once the news from Massachusetts broke.
“What’s happened in Massachusetts seems to vindicate what our police chief told us: There is a value to having a [government] background check,” said Jason Stanford, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who added that there is constant pressure from the inexhaustibly deep-pocketed TNCs to give in. “But all of that will be for naught if the state passes a law preempting our local law.”
NLA’s Biggest Victory in Years
In addition to its indefatigable work behind the scenes, the National Limousine Association (NLA) goes to bat for the industry every year during its annual Day on the Hill, where scores of operators and vendors seek face-to-face conversations with their elected officials. Some years yield more quantifiable progress than others, but this year made for a significant win.
NLA Co-founder and Secretary Scott Solombrino of Dav El/BostonCoach issued an encouraging letter at the end of November that celebrated “the single biggest event since our passage of the ‘Ride Act’ years ago.” That win, of course, was striking down a tax measure that would further tilt the playing field in TNCs’ favor by allowing them the chance to continually misclassify their employees as independent contractors in a way that is wholly illegal for luxury ground transportation operators to emulate but would put TNCs at a financial advantage.
“In April, more than 8,200 of the 70,789 TNC drivers in The Bay State were disqualified from operation after failing the first-ever statewide background checks.”
“Our first reaction was to see if our entire industry could be given access to convert from W2 class to 1099, thus giving us the same level playing field,” Solombrino wrote in his industrywide letter. “Under the existing IRS and labor code, that is illegal. We soon realized that other industry groups WOULD NOT be granted the benefit thus leaving us with only one option. This provision would have decided the debate over worker classification in FAVOR of the TNCs despite multiple legal cases and regulatory challenges.”
The historically right-leaning industry found its allies by reaching across the aisle as it sought to eliminate an “unacceptable and immortal” tax provision and aligned itself with a coterie of strictly Democratic politicians. After the NLA gained the support of three senators, more soon followed until Sherrod Brown, Tom Carper, Bob Casey Jr., Chris Murphy, Patty Murray, Bernie Sanders, Jeanne Shaheen, and Elizabeth Warren—many of whom either met directly with operators during this year’s Day on the Hill or had a representative hear their concerns—railed against the provision and ensured that it was pulled from the tax bill’s final version.
“The NLA strongly opposed this provision and mobilized to defeat it,” Solombrino wrote. “We succeeded in getting three senators to offer an amendment to strike it on the grounds that the government should not be picking winners and losers. Traditional chauffeured transportation companies still have to pay overtime, workers’ compensation, minimum wages, health benefits, and meet dozens of other onerous requirements as employee-based companies. Meanwhile Uber and Lyft conduct business in the same manner as our industry—they drive passengers for pay—yet would be exempted from providing all the traditional benefits that our employees receive.”
Buses and Motorcoaches Score Wins, Too
With national associations like the American Bus Association (ABA) and United Motorcoach Association (UMA) on its side, the bus and motorcoach industry has seen its share of effective lobbying efforts come to victorious fruition in the past year. And with the increasingly tantalizing crossover potential that comes with tapping into a specialized transportation facet that presents a nearly impossible barrier to entry for TNCs’ underqualified driving pool, it only becomes more imperative for our industry to pay attention to what goes on in the world of big rigs.
Both the UMA and ABA host their own legislative days, just like the NLA and several regional associations. And they, too, advocate for a host of relevant, timely issues for the betterment of the bus and motorcoach world. In the past year, they have encouraged members and operators to make sure their elected officials hear their voices and keep their eyes on an assortment of bills.
Bills ranging from drivers’ physical health to sleep disorders, from workplace injuries to thwarting human trafficking, and from government funding to safety have been on the associations’ radar and earmarked for either industry support or a collective rebuttal. While many of its supported resolutions have passed in the Senate and are awaiting further consideration, it scored a victory in September with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 (HR-244), which funded the Intercity Bus Security Grant Program at $2 million and was passed by both the House and Senate, signed by the President, and became Public Law No. 115.31.
The Battle Continues
As this industry knows all too well, managing success is a herculean effort in its own right: It’s one thing to take pride in every instance of encouraging momentum, but it’s another thing entirely to rest on one’s laurels. And complacency is nothing if not the enemy of progress.
The battle wages on. Fingerprint background checks for TNC applicants are still meeting with nationwide resistance, and the cities and states that once refused to yield to pressure from TNCs and their lobbyists are susceptible to the pressure of both a stubborn public opinion and TNCs’ notoriously bottomless well of wealth. The NLA has set its sights on autonomous cars next, concerned that TNCs’ business models would see a meteoric ascent in dominating the transportation scene once the human element is removed from the equation.
So what can you do to make 2018 another banner year? If you’re already an active member of the industry’s national, regional, and corollary professional associations, you’re well on your way to being an instrument of positive change. It’s those organizations that help ensure operators are advocating and lobbying for the same things in order to keep the message harmonious and the industry’s objectives cohesive.
Don’t wait for someone else to take the reins. After all, you didn’t want to live someone else’s dreams—you went out and chased your own. Do you really want to leave the future of the company that you’ve built, grown, or were raised in to the will of others? [CD1217]