Danny Doherty, a driver for Delux Transportation Services, with his...

Danny Doherty, a driver for Delux Transportation Services, with his taxi in Port Washington. Doherty noted that he is drug-tested annually as part of North Hempstead Town's registration process. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Ride-hailing giants such as Uber and Lyft, and the Nassau taxi operators that want to keep them out, have made the county their battleground in the weeks before the services become legal statewide.

The new law goes into effect July 9, although the State Legislature has passed a bill awaiting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature to move the start date to June 29.

That means the popular services that allow people to hail privately owned cars via smartphone soon will operate under state oversight, without local-level restrictions, unless counties decide to ban them.

The intense lobbying centers on that “opt-out” provision, which the counties can trigger before the state authorization goes into effect, or anytime thereafter.

Nassau, more so than Suffolk, has become the focus of the debate over expanding the service beyond New York City, where it has been legal since 2013, due to its denser population and stable of well-established, politically connected cab companies.

Those taxi firms have made tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the county’s elected leaders in recent years, state campaign finance records show.

Uber and Lyft, the industry leaders, have been lobbying county officials, running print and radio advertisements, and sharing polls that show wide public support for ride-hailing expansion. They tout the new state regulations as extensive.

“This is something people are clamoring for,” said Josh Gold, Uber’s New York policy director. “At the end of the day, we have faith the elected leaders will do what’s in the best interest of their constituents and allow us to operate under the state law, like the vast majority of the country.”

Leaders of the Nassau taxi industry have pushed back by raising concerns about passenger safety.

They have met with county lawmakers and sent letters that cite accusations of rape and assault that customers have made against ride-hailing drivers elsewhere in the nation. The taxi companies criticize the new state law for requiring ride-hailing companies to conduct driver background checks, rather than the state itself. They also say New York should mandate fingerprint checks, as local governments do for taxi drivers.

“It comes down to this: The riding public of Nassau County needs to be safe, and they’re not going to be safe without a government-conducted fingerprint background check,” said Larry Blessinger, who runs several taxi and limousine companies in Nassau and serves as president of the Nassau & Suffolk Taxi Owners Association.

Pols: We’re studying it

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, and the GOP-controlled county legislature, which would need to pass local legislation to opt out, say they’re still studying the issue. Mangano has asked Gregory May, commissioner of the county’s Taxi & Limousine Commission, the department that regulates for-hire vehicles, to issue a recommendation based on yet-to-be published state rules and regulations for ride-hailing services.

The TLC’s eight-member advisory board, consisting of appointees of Mangano and the legislature, also will issue a nonbinding recommendation on whether Nassau should opt out. The volunteer board has four members with ties to the taxi industry, including Blessinger, but no one from ride-hailing services.

A spokesman for Mangano declined to comment on the administration’s thinking.

Commission members without direct taxi ties acknowledge the stakes are high.

“This decision is going to have an effect on our local economy and the lives of members of our community,” said Farmingdale Village Mayor Ralph Ekstrand, noting that he will seek to balance the interests of young people who want easy access to transportation with seniors who rely on traditional cabs.

The ride-hailing fight moved from Albany to local counties after statewide authorization was included in the state budget passed in late April.

For the first time, the services will be permitted to carry passengers point-to-point on Long Island. Currently, legal ride-hailing in Nassau or Suffolk must either originate or end in New York City, which independently regulates the services.

Under the new state law, the Department of Motor Vehicles will oversee licensing, insurance and inspection requirements for all ride-hailing outside New York City. Counties such as Nassau, which now registers all for-hire vehicles within its borders, and the towns and villages that license and test drivers, will have no role, costing them potential fine revenue as well as local control.

“New York residents can soon expect robust and safe ride-sharing options offered by companies that are authorized and overseen by DMV,” said DMV spokesman Richard Meddaugh.

Under review in other counties

While Nassau is the largest focus of the lobbying fight between ride-hailing and taxi companies, other suburban counties also are considering the opt-out issue.

The administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, says it still is reviewing the statewide ride-hailing law. But Gold of Uber said, “We’ve had great conversations in Suffolk and I think they’re excited to provide better transportation opportunities.”

A spokesman for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, also has said the administration is awaiting the DMV-issued rules and regulations before making a decision on opting out.

Matthew Fernando, a spokesman for the Nassau legislature’s Republican majority, said GOP lawmakers who met with Uber representatives several weeks ago raised concerns about the lack of county regulations and oversight of ride-hailing vehicles.

“Taxi cabs are regulated by the TLC but Uber regulates itself,” Fernando said. “We want to make sure these vehicles are safe.”

Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), who also has met with Uber, said he was leaning toward supporting the ride-hailing services.

“We’ve never tried to limit transportation options,” Abrahams said, citing Democrats’ opposition to NICE Bus cuts. “Why would we limit something like this, which would provide more opportunities for people to go north-south in our county?”

Taxi industry has clout

The taxi industry, however, has considerable clout in Nassau. The companies, their owners and other businesses they control have contributed more than $200,000 to Mangano and county legislators of both parties over the past decade, state records show. One of the contributors is Blessinger, who personally and through his businesses has given more than $10,000 to Mangano’s campaigns.

County officials say the political contributions will have no impact on their decision.

Cab company owners say if local municipalities cannot regulate ride-hailing as they do the taxi industry, the state law should at least have requirements that DMV conduct driver background checks, including fingerprinting.

“Jump through the same hoops we have to jump through,” said Peter Blasucci, president of Delux Transportation Services in Port Washington and a member of the Nassau TLC advisory board.

One of Blasucci’s drivers, Danny Doherty, said he is drug-tested annually as part of North Hempstead Town’s registration process. He characterized the state’s ride-hailing regulations as requiring “basically just a driver’s license and a heartbeat.”

Uber and Lyft officials said their drivers’ vehicles undergo safety inspections and drivers must submit to detailed criminal background checks. They also say the new law’s insurance requirements are in some cases more stringent than those in place for taxis in Nassau.

They argue that the services are popular with customers, pointing to an Siena College poll in April that found 74 percent of suburban voters support ride-hailing.

“We know that the leadership of Nassau County is not 100 percent supportive but also know that the majority of Nassau County residents are supportive,” said Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin. “We are hopeful that the elected officials will follow the wishes of their constituents.”

But in a letter this month to town and county elected officials in Nassau, Blessinger listed several cases nationwide in which Uber drivers were accused of crimes against passengers, including an alleged rape in March of a woman in Orange County, California. “Voice your opinion so the opt out occurs to protect the residents of Nassau and Suffolk County,” Blessinger wrote.

Gold said Uber takes steps that make their vehicles safer than many taxis. Riders can send their trip information to family members, who can then see the driver’s name and rating and track the vehicle’s location. And the app makes filing complaints with Uber and local authorities easy, Gold said.

As the lobbying battle ratchets up, the services are asking town and village officials to weigh in with the county.

Flower Hill Village Mayor Robert McNamara wrote earlier this month to Mangano and county legislative leaders, calling ride-hailing “safe, affordable and reliable.”

McNamara said, “it has pained us to see the numbers of alcohol-related collisions in Nassau — we have some of the highest number of drunken driving incidents in the state. Ride-sharing services have proven to reduce instances of drunken driving where they exist, making our communities safer.”

Nassau’s taxi regulation efforts

Last year there were 2,394 licensed for-hire vehicles, including taxis, limos and black cars, in Nassau County

In 2016, the county issued roughly 3,900 violations to city-licensed ride-hailing companies and collected $910,000 in revenue.

Thus far in 2017, the county has issued about 2,500 violations and collected about $750,000 in revenue.

Source: Nassau County Taxi & Limousine Commission

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