July 02--The technology is new but the attempt to get around public transportation laws isn't, two administrative law judges said Tuesday in ordering app-based ride-sharing services to halt operations in Pennsylvania until they are licensed.

Judges Mary Long and Jeffrey Watson granted the Public Utility Commission emergency orders against Uber and Lyft while the agency pursues administrative actions against them.

"Although the digital platform used to connect passengers with transportation is new and innovative, the proscription against using private vehicles for transportation without commission authority is hardly new," the judges said.

The decision hurts people in Pittsburgh who seek transportation or the opportunity to make extra income as a driver, said Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen.

"We remain committed to finding a path forward for ride-sharing in Pennsylvania and are working with elected officials to ensure that consumers continue to have access to peer-to-peer transportation," she said.

Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett said the order is "baffling," particularly in advance of the July Fourth holiday when ride-sharing could reduce incidences of drunken driving.

"While we plan to continue our commitment to reliable and safe service in Pennsylvania, we look forward to continuing to work with the PUC to find a permanent home for ride-sharing in Pennsylvania," he said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in June wrote to the PUC, complaining about "overbearing enforcement activities" aimed at shutting down the companies' operations.

"This is a disappointing ruling, but the mayor remains committed to innovation and providing safe and popular transit options for Pittsburgh," Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said.

The judges in the ruling against Lyft drew upon a 1930 situation in Pittsburgh when striking cab drivers used personal vehicles to offer transportation. Though they said they wouldn't charge fares, they made it clear that no "contributions" were refused, the judges wrote.

Lyft made a similar argument in seeking to avoid the order, claiming that it merely accepts donations and doesn't charge fares for rides. Uber took a different tack, claiming it is simply a software company providing a smartphone app.

Motor Carrier Enforcement Manager Charles Bowser testified at a hearing on Thursday, Downtown, that he downloaded apps from both companies, both of which required him to provide a credit card number, and that they charged him for each ride he arranged through their respective apps.

The PUC contends that the San Francisco-based companies operate as unlicensed transportation brokers in Pennsylvania and use non-certified drivers.

Lyft started operating in the Pittsburgh area in February; Uber, in March.

The PUC sought the cease-and-desist order last month because the companies continued operating despite proposed agency fines of $130,000 for Lyft and $95,000 for Uber.

The companies have applications pending for PUC permits.

PUC commissioners can accept, reject or modify the judges' decision at their July 9 meeting. The companies could appeal an unfavorable commission decision to Commonwealth Court.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.


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