Limo operators' PAC targets Uber, Lyft

* Seeks funds to regulate ride-sharing network

A statewide limousine operators' trade group is raising money to ramp up lobbying efforts for a bill to regulate ride-sharing networks Uber and Lyft, which it says are illegally encroaching on its turf.

"We are soliciting donations to our PAC [political action committee] fund to allow us to donate to political figures so we can have our voices heard," Jeff Shanker, chairman of the Limousine Associations of New Jersey's legislative committee, told a gathering of about 50 of the group's members Wednesday at the Princeton Marriott. "We may have raised $1,000," Shanker said on Thursday. That will roughly double the size of group's PAC, he said.

The money was raised at the meeting by auctioning off tickets to an upcoming trade show at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

A bill introduced in June by Assemblyman Charles Mainor, a Jersey City Democrat, would make Uber and Lyft — which connect drivers and passengers via mobile phone apps — subject to the same licensing and insurance requirements limousine operators must meet. The key requirements are $1.5 million in commercial insurance, commercial limousine license plates and driver background checks through the state Department of Law and Public Safety.

"We are hoping the legislation in New Jersey will be a boilerplate for the rest of the country," Shanker said. "We are not trying to put them out of business; we want them to play on a level playing field. Public safety is the main concern."

Among the other Assembly sponsors of the bill, which has been referred to the Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, is Joseph A. Lagana, D-Bergenfield. Uber and Lyft, both based in San Francisco, have a competitive advantage over traditional limousine companies in part because they have fewer regulatory and other expenses. They recruit drivers who own and maintain their own vehicles, provide their own smartphones and GPS devices, and have their own personal auto insurance.

They also have more financial clout than the Limousine Associations of New Jersey, which has 92 members, mostly small businesses, with fewer than 10 cars and fewer than 20 employees.

Uber Technologies Inc. has gotten funding from Fidelity Investments, BlackRock and Google Ventures, among others, and has been valued at $17 billion. Lyft Chief Executive Officer John Zimmer said Wednesday that his company has received $333 million in funding and has boosted ridership to 2 million from 1 million in just the past month.

Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said Thursday that the company does not want regulators to equate its "peer-to-peer model" with traditional limousine operators. "Lyft isn't a limo, and Lyft drivers are not limo drivers," said Wilson, adding the company is operating within the law in New Jersey.

Lyft drivers have $1 million in commercial liability coverage from James River Insurance Co., which becomes the primary coverage from the time a driver is matched with a passenger until the trip is completed, she said.

"We stand behind our insurance policy," Wilson said.

Lyft drivers, who split fares with the ride-share network, undergo thorough background checks through New York City-based SterlingBackcheck, and applicants with serious criminal records are rejected, she said.

But in the lucrative New York City market, Lyft and Uber have succumbed to pressure to operate under the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission licensing and rules, which include regular drug testing of drivers, vehicle inspections and an affiliation with a licensed base of operations.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, where the rules are in dispute, the presence of Uber and Lyft has grown.

Jason Sharenow, chief operating officer of Broadway Elite Limo in East Hanover, downloaded the Uber app just to keep an eye on the competition, as the app allows him to see the locations of Uber cars on his mobile phone screen.

"The other night there was a car right outside my house," he said. "At the Giants game Sunday, there were 20 Uber cars waiting out there."