Pennsylvania lawmakers are poised to put a welcome end to the long-standing official fiction that ride-sharing services such as Uber are fine for most of the commonwealth (and the country) but a grave threat to Philadelphia's way of life. Unfortunately, the legislature could at the same time further empower the wayward agency that strove to propagate that myth, basic cable's own Philadelphia Parking Authority.
Since the state Public Utility Commission provisionally licensed Uber and Lyft to operate everywhere in the state except Philadelphia more than a year ago, ride-sharing services have constituted a busy black market within the city. Representatives of the Parking Authority and the oligopoly it enables, the taxi industry, have compared ride-sharing companies to an array of miscreants and evildoers, up to and including ISIS. The Parking Authority, the only state agency that has been the focus of a tourism-killing reality show (A&E's Parking Wars), even colluded with taxi owners on a lavishly funded lobbying effort against Uber et al - even as City Council flatly called for the services' decriminalization.
Word last week that SEPTA's Regional Rail system will try collaborating with Uber in the suburbs made its continued prohibition in the city that much more absurd.
Now the ride-sharing companies could be permanently permitted throughout the commonwealth, including its largest city, under legislation passed by the state Senate last fall and up for a vote in the House as soon as this week. If that happens, don't thank the Parking Authority: A key backer of the bill, House Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Godshall (R., Montgomery), told the Inquirer that the agency had "helped very little" in getting it done.
The authority nevertheless stands to suck up most of the revenue from a tax on the industry if it is legalized. While the legislation under consideration at one point promised Philadelphia's underfunded schools two-thirds of that revenue, the latest version guarantees the Parking Authority as much as $2 million a year per ride-sharing firm, which could well leave nothing for the schools. Authority officials maintain they need the money to expand their crack regulatory regime, but Councilwoman Helen Gym questioned that analysis and called for an audit of the agency.
Gym is on to something. The whole war to keep taxi competition out of Philadelphia was meant to preserve a system that enriches the antiquated taxi cartel and maintains the Parking Authority's notorious patronage mill at the expense of consumers and taxpayers. Failing that, the authority is searching for a windfall to replace the tribute that the traditional cab companies can no longer afford.
Rather than reward a rogue agency with further revenue and responsibility, lawmakers should allow the Public Utility Commission to regulate the taxi industry in Philadelphia just as it does elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers have an opportunity to expand Philadelphians' transportation options even as they reduce the burden of an unaccountable and outdated bureaucracy.