— Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
WELCOME, UBER X; GOODBYE GOVERNMENT-SANCTIONED MONOPOLIES
Welcome to the Harrisburg area, Uber X.
The innovative ride-sharing service that Uber X offers, using independent drivers dispatched by smart phone, is eventually going to end the outdated, cumbersome, consumer-unfriendly way government now regulates the taxi industry.
Uber X has won state Public Utility Commission permission to operate in Harrisburg and most other parts of the state, except some rural counties and Philadelphia.
It was a long, hard fight because Uber X's business model challenges the government-regulated, competition-suppressing structure of today's taxi business.
It's clear that the old-fashioned way of regulating the taxi industry is on the way out.
Governments typically limit the number of taxis or taxi companies that can operate in an area, dictate the rates they can charge and set safety rules for operators.
This arrangement is supposed to protect consumers from being gouged and ensure drivers and taxi companies can make decent money while operating vehicles that are safe. (The fear was that unlimited competition would drive down rates to the point that drivers and cab companies, desperate to make a living, would skip necessary repairs and possibly rip off riders.)
But government regulation of taxis hasn't worked out so well. Service can be spotty, drivers can run up fares by taking round-about routes, and the cabs, while mechanically safe, can be pretty tired and worn.
On top of all that, artificially limiting who can compete in the taxi business by capping the total number of taxis that can operate, as some large U.S. cities like Philadelphia do, produces an economic windfall to permit owners.
In those places, just one permit can cost tens of thousands of dollars — far beyond what most individual cab drivers could afford. Permits there are typically bought by entrepreneurs who own or cooperate with cab companies, which then hire drivers as "independent contractors." Each day a driver works, a big chunk of the fares goes for the cost of using one of those artificially-limited, government-issued permits.
Because government permission to run a taxi business in a given area is valuable, their owners will spend money on lawyers, lobbyists and even campaign contributions to persuade government regulators to protect their interests. Drivers and passengers have far less influence in the process.
When government regulators consider improving service for customers by expanding the number of taxi companies or taxi permits, existing taxi companies say, "You can't do that. You'll slash the value of my business." It takes considerable money and time to fight back for the right to compete, as Uber X showed.
Ride-sharing services like Uber X are showing that there's another way to protect consumers and allow drivers make a decent living.
The smart phone revolution enables consumers to get information about the ride they will buy — photos of the driver and the vehicle, the driver's ratings by other riders, and a firm price for the trip. Drivers pay a flat 20 percent for Uber's services — unlike a traditional cab company, where a driver can work all night and not cover fixed costs.
In Uber's system, drivers can also evaluate riders. That can improve safety for drivers, but it also creates the potential for discrimination, if residents of certain neighborhoods are routinely denied service.
The state utility commission, which held exhaustive hearings on the issue last summer, set some reasonable conditions on Uber X's operation, during what will be a two-year experiment. Its drivers will have to have background checks and proper insurance, and no vehicle older than eight years is permitted.
Those kinds of safety and quality of service regulations will need to continue. But it's clear that the old-fashioned way of regulating the taxi industry is on the way out. It has been a great deal for those who own the taxi operating permits. It's not so great for drivers or the passengers they carry.
TAKE A STAND FOR PUBLIC LIBRARIES
Amid all the discussion during this year's gubernatorial campaign about public education funding, another bastion of learning was largely ignored.
Ignored, that is, until Ephrata Public Library, one of the busiest libraries in Lancaster County, cut its staff in half and said it will no longer be open Fridays and Sundays through the end of the year.
Public libraries are not the same as public schools, of course, and the differences include the portion of their budgets that state funding provides.
State aid — which fell from a high of $75 million in 2002 to about $53.5 million today — provides between 16 percent and 18 percent of public libraries' income, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, through which their funding comes.
In Pennsylvania this year, public schools are getting about 40 percent of their funding from the state, 55 percent from local property taxes and the rest from the federal government.
Locally, Lancaster County kicks in about $2 million per year toward libraries — about half of it going to the county's library system, which provides support services such as database subscriptions, staff training and the online catalog county residents can use to find a book in one of the county's 14 member libraries.
Libraries also get some support from the municipalities they serve.
But the vast bulk of their funding comes from fundraising — 64 percent in Ephrata Public Library's case. And that is what fell short, leading to the significant cuts announced Wednesday, according to Penny Talbert, the Ephrata library's executive director.
The future looks no better.
"I'm putting together the most pathetic library budget for next year," Talbert said.
And that's a shame, given that the Ephrata library trails only the Lancaster Public Library in programs and is among the largest-circulation libraries in the county — both total and per capita.
Times are tight and taxpayers are in no mood for tax increases, but budgets, and our tolerance for taxes, are about priorities.
The county commissioners will hold a public session on the 2015 county budget 6 p.m. Nov. 25 on the first floor of the County Government Center, near its Binns Park entrance on North Queen Street.
A new governor takes office and a new session of the state General Assembly begins in January.
And local libraries will accept donations.
If public libraries — a key information source for many people — are a priority, it's time to start speaking up or making donations.
As recent reductions in Ephrata show, public libraries are about at the end of their fiscal ropes.