A ride to the nearest grocery store, restaurant, theater or bar will soon be just a tap away, as long-awaited ride-hailing services for upstate New York were officially approved as part of the state budget.
The state Senate gathered Sunday evening to formally vote on the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which the Assembly approved Saturday. The $153 billion deal was reached a week after its due date, but includes several significant programs and changes.
Among them are free tuition for middle-class and low-income residents at state public colleges, an increase in education aid for public schools across the state and the expansion of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, which will be allowed to operate outside of New York City starting in about 90 days.
The last measure was lauded by local lawmakers and business leaders, who worried that Capital Region communities were falling behind without the ability to access the technology.
“As a business owner, it levels the playing field with the rest of the country,” said David Buicko, CEO of the Galesi Group. “I’m happy we got it done. I think it’ll benefit the whole Capital Region.”
Apps like Uber and Lyft allow users to hail a car with their a smartphones. New York City has had ride-hailing since 2011, but legislation to expand the service to the rest of the state had gotten hung up on disagreements over insurance regulations and driver background checks.
Organizations representing taxicab drivers had expressed similar concerns about having adequate background checks for ride-sharing drivers.
Prior to the budget deal, New York state, minus New York City, was one of only a handful of states and municipalities nationwide without Uber or Lyft in the community, leaving residents and visitors to rely on taxis or public transportation.
Individual counties can opt to block ride-hailing services from expanding in their jurisdiction, but leaders in Schenectady, Saratoga and Albany counties have publicly expressed support for the technology.
Many advocates of ride-hailing services -- restaurant and bar owners among them -- argued that the app-based service could help cut down on drunken driving, and give more customers a way to get to and from local businesses.
“We also have a lot of companies reach out and say they have out of town guests coming in, and when they land at the airport or get to the train station, they expect to be able to use this technology, and it wasn’t available,” said Mark Eagan, president of the Capital Region Chamber. “It wasn’t a good image for our community.”
Beyond that, Eagan said the technology will be particularly beneficial for the Capital Region, where a high concentration of colleges and universities means more students without a car. With Uber or Lyft, he said, those students can now more easily make their way around the area.
Those who depend on tourism dollars have also long believed the service could be helpful. In Saratoga Springs, advocates argued that Uber and Lyft could help make short trips from Broadway to SPAC or the race track more convenient.
The same logic applies in Schenectady, where local lawmakers are placing a new emphasis on tourism. Officials at Rivers Casino & Resort and the Mohawk Harbor development felt Uber could provide an alternative to taxis for patrons making the short drive from downtown or to Proctors for a show.
“We know from our experience in other markets that guests of Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady will absolutely take advantage of ride-sharing, and we view it as a safe, reliable option for our visitors,” casino General Manager Mary Cheeks said in a prepared statement.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara went as far as to organize a demonstration of the app outside the casino prior to its opening. He was among those who hailed the new budget agreement as a victory for its legalization of Uber, among other things.
“Not only do ride-sharing services employ local residents, the increased access to reliable transportation will drive tourism to local businesses like the new casino in downtown Schenectady,” Santabarbara said in a statement.
Schenectady City Councilman John Polimeni authored a resolution of support in December calling on the state to legalize ride-hailing in upstate. Now that expansion is imminent, he said it will provide another transportation option for visitors, as well as a potential income source for residents who can work as drivers.
The city of Schenectady is in the midst of implementing “smart cities” technology, which consists of GPS beacons and Wi-Fi equipped LED street lights, among other things.
“Business people, when they come into a community now they pretty much expect to have Uber,” Polimeni said. “Especially for a city that’s pushing smart cities technology and innovation, for us not to have access to ride-sharing is silly.”