Premier John Horgan says he’s disappointed the independent agency charged with approving ride-hailing licences is taking so long, and suggested it has an obligation to explain to the public what is causing the delays.
Horgan told reporters this week he had wanted the Passenger Transportation Board to decide on the applications of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft before Christmas, and at the latest before he returned from holidays on Jan. 13.
The board has approved two small companies to operate in Whistler and Tofino, but pressure remains for it decide upon the major players in Metro Vancouver.
“I was hopeful that this would have been resolved before I came back to stand before you,” Horgan said at a news conference at the legislature. “But again, this is an independent body. And I think the best place for you to ask your questions is there. They’re the ones making the decision at this point. We’ve laid out the framework, we’ve passed and changed legislation. And now it’s up to them.”
However, the Passenger Transportation Board has gone silent, refusing interview requests. That has left 24 ride-hailing applicants, the public and — surprisingly — the government, in the dark.
“You’d get more information from the Iraqi information minister than the PTB, it’s ridiculous,” said Liberal critic Jas Johal. “We have no idea what’s happening. Companies to my understanding are sitting there and staring at the computer screens on the PTB website and hitting refresh every few minutes.”
Board chair Catharine Reid, whom the NDP government appointed to the job, has refused interview requests for more than four months.
“It would be inappropriate for the board chair to comment on, or participate in an interview regarding the ride-hailing applications currently before the board,” the board said said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The board is working toward issuing decisions on ride-hailing applications as expeditiously as possible. The review process is taking time because of the large number of applications that have been filed and the significant volume of materials involved.”
Meanwhile, images on social media recently showed massive lineups for taxis at Vancouver International Airport as frustrated passengers waited in the cold and snow for limited rides and complained about being unable to call ride-hailing vehicles.
The government’s ride-hailing law put the Passenger Transportation Board in charge of licence approvals and reforms to the taxi sector. The rationale was that an independent body would remove politics from the process. The NDP government faces public pressure to approve Uber and Lyft, but also promised to protect the taxi sector in the last election and is reliant on taxi drivers for votes in key Surrey ridings.
Both ride-hailing companies and taxi associations appear as confused as the public about the delays.
“There is dead silence,” said Carolyn Bauer, spokesperson for the Vancouver Taxi Association. “No one is getting any information. Nothing at all.”
Uber is also mystified.
“We are respecting the PTB process and look forward to making our app available as soon as possible,” said Michael van Hemmen, the company’s B.C. manager.
The taxi association continues to lobby the board to put in a 2,500-licence cap on ride-hailing vehicles to match the 2,500 taxis in Metro Vancouver, as well as to ban what it calls “predatory pricing” from big companies like Uber and Lyft.
The board decided in August not to put a cap on ride-hailing licences, prompting several NDP cabinet ministers to express public concern and Transportation Minister Claire Trevena to write a letter expressing disappointment.
Horgan said his government has tried to suggest action from the board while respecting its independence.
“We’ve been doing what’s appropriate nudging for an independent agency,” said the premier. “We have done, I believe, everything we can to make this as open and transparent as possible for the existing industry, and also for the travelling public.” When the system is running a year from how, “you won’t be asking me why it took so long.”
Not good enough, say the Opposition Liberals. “The public is frustrated,” said Johal. “And for the premier to wash his hands of this and say he’s frustrated — look, you set up this process, this is on you and your government.”