- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A new law could allow rideshare firms like Uber to be operating in Montana by this fall, but some taxi drivers say it does not include enough regulation.

The bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock last week repeals state restrictions that allowed taxi and limousine operators to block new competitors. It also adds a new class of license under which app-based rideshare firms and individuals can provide ride services if they meet certain criteria.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic Rep. Ellie Hill of Missoula, said getting rid of that antiquated competitor provision will open up the market which will be good for consumers.

“They had a good old-fashioned monopoly going here in Montana,” Hill said of the taxi industry. “Montana has long said we don’t protect monopolies.”

Montana Taxi Association President Mary Garcia, who owns a Butte taxi company, said her main concern is not competition from new taxi or ridesharing companies. The Montana Public Service Commission regulates taxi rates, she said.

“Uber can change their rates at any moment. How can that be fair?”

Garcia is right about that, according to Justin Karske, chief legal counsel for the PSC, which oversees the taxi industry and will oversee ridesharing companies under the new class of license. The new law won’t allow PSC the authority to regulate rates under the new license class. But, in order to receive the license, applicants will have to pay a fee and show they have insurance at a much higher level than required by taxis.

Nickie Eck, PSC’s business operation supervisor, said Wednesday that she’s gotten a lot of calls from people interested in the new license.

“They want to get rolling today,” she said. “As the law reads we’re not able to put the application out until July 1.”

The PSC is currently working on proposed rules for the application, which they plan to file with the Secretary of State on Monday. Then the public can weigh in with comments online and at a June hearing in Helena.

Politicians throughout the country have been working to regulate fast-evolving “transportation network” companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. People using the services can have a ride within minutes just by touching a few buttons on a smartphone or tablet. Payment is done through the app.

Uber supported the Montana law, hiring a lobbyist during the legislative session to help usher it through. Although it has no immediate plans for launch, Uber spokeswoman Kate Downen said it’s looking forward to exploring opportunities in the state.

Spokeswomen for Lyft and Sidecar both said Wednesday that the companies also have no current plans to enter the Montana market.

“(The) bill provides a common-sense statewide framework for ridesharing,” said Lyft spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt, who added many Montana cities would be a great fit for the company.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, said he supported the measure in part because he’s seen too many people drive drunk.

“Everyone knows you can’t get a cab,” he said of his recent experience as a college student in Missoula. “People would drive drunk, that’s just how it would be. This could be a legitimate solution, also for small towns with no cab service at all.”

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