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Advocate opposes Cuomo push for Upstate ridesharing

Mike Desmond/WBFO News

At least one person in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts did not agree Monday when Governor Cuomo's State of the State message included a full-throated pitch for ridesharing, like Uber and Lyft.  Todd Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy for the Western New York Independent Living Center, does not agree with the pitch, saying ridesharing companies do not allow access for people like him, the state's disabled community.

Vaarwerk called the ride-sharing policies discrimination.

"If we look at the situation and we said about any other group: We're going to bring a new service in that Irish people can't use. You wouldn't even think of that. If we brought in a service that Hispanic people couldn't use, we wouldn't even think of that," Vaarwerk said. 

"But, in this argument we're considered collateral damage to the expansion of Uber in Upstate New York."

Vaarwerk says that collateral damage term was used to his boss to explain why the disabled aren't covered. He says it took nearly two decades for taxicabs to be required to be handicapped accessible and that's still not completely true.

Uber and Lyft are considered key to many business and tourism visitors who want the independence of going on their smart phones to ask for a driver to take them wherever they want to go, with the current difficulties of getting from Buffalo Niagara International Airport to Niagara Falls listed as a reason for ride-sharing.

"I just don't think there is any downside," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, President and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

"Not having it (ride-sharing) makes a statement about our community that we don't want to make. We're the largest city in the country that currently does not have ride-sharing. That makes us look backwards."

Gallagher-Cohen also argues that ride-sharing reduces drunk driving by offering partiers an affordable, convenient option to driving home while under the influence.

New York taxi drivers continued their opposition to expanding ridesharing to Upstate.

"By granting Uber special treatment, as opposed to holding it accountable to the same laws as the taxi and for-hire industry, what Governor Cuomo is expanding upstate is poverty wages," said New York Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai. "Regulations in place now, like those in Rochester where there are 300 taxi drivers, most of whom are black, protect full time income. If we let Uber wipe out these rules, among the first casualties will be the Governor's promise of $15/hour and job creation."

Desai cited the case of former Uber driver Jeffrey Shepherd, who he says was forced to quit because he could not cover his living expenses.

"Uber fought Jeffrey tooth and nail to stop him from receiving unemployment benefits and now that he has won the benefits he deserves, Uber is appealing in an apparent attempt to stop workers from standing up for their rights," he said. 

Desai said Uber is "a Wall Street darling" that "doesn't abide by minimum wage laws, needs to recognize its drivers as employees and pay its fair share into unemployment benefit funds, Medicare, and Social Security."

Meanwhile, Adrian Durbin, Director of Policy Communications at Lyft, offered the following comment on the Governor's comments:

"We are grateful for Governor Cuomo's leadership today and look forward to working with the Legislature in the weeks ahead to bring ridesharing to Buffalo and all of New York State.  The benefits of ridesharing are clear: better transportation, safer roads, and improved economic opportunities.  We believe the time has come for New York to join the thirty-seven other states that have passed comprehensive ridesharing legislation."

Credit WBFO's Eileen Buckley

Ray Zylinski of the Olmsted Center for Sight in Buffalo thanked the Governor for supporting ridesharing.

"As a visually impaired person and someone who works to connect individuals with physical and visual impairments with the competitive workforce, I am excited about the potential that peer-to-peer ridesharing offers,” said Zylinski. “There are some inherent limitations with existing para-transit services as it exists today and ridesharing can help fill the gaps for those who need to get to work, the doctor, or visit family."

Zylinski lost his sight at age one and is featured in television advertisements for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's Metro Bus service.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.