ALBANY, N.Y. — Lawmakers returning to Albany for the usual debates over taxes and spending will also take on an issue even more basic to many New Yorkers — the options for getting home from the train station, the airport or a long night out on the town.
Uber is hoping lawmakers approve statewide regulations during the 2016 legislative session that will allow the app-based ride-hailing service to expand into upstate cities including Buffalo, Albany, Rochester and Syracuse.
The service is now legally permitted to operate only in the immediate New York City area. The company, whose smartphone-based service allows users to quickly order car service, has expanded rapidly throughout the country in recent years. Josh Mohrer, Uber's New York general manager, said rules allowing Uber to operate have been passed in 27 states.
"People really want this, being able to push a button and get a ride," he said. "Buffalo is now the largest American city by population that doesn't have Uber. My goal is to go where we're not."
The company has assembled a large coalition of local mayors, drunken driving activists, state lawmakers and even clergy who support the expansion. Aside from a new transportation alternative, Uber promises to create thousands of flexible driving jobs throughout upstate.
But the taxi companies aren't giving up without a fight. The industry warns that Uber's expansion will threaten the jobs of dispatch operators and other back-room employees who aren't necessary for Uber's web-based business model. They've also questioned the effectiveness of background checks on Uber drivers and said the company's vehicles are required to be accessible for the disabled.
Bill Yuhnke, president of Buffalo's Liberty Yellow Cab, said Uber doesn't want to abide by the same rules — taxes, fare regulations, insurance — that have long applied to the taxi industry. He noted his company has long offered an app that allows riders to order a car.
"It's not a level playing field. If they played by the same rules I wouldn't have any problem," he said, noting that Uber sets its own fares while taxi fares are closely regulated. "You can't be half pregnant. You're either a taxi or not. We've been doing this for years. We have standards in place."
Lawmakers are expected to consider various options that would allow Uber — and rival Lyft — to expand throughout the state. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in October that he is in favor of a statewide licensing system.
"You can't do Uber city by city," he said.
Syracuse-area resident Donna Keeping hopes to be one of Uber's first upstate drivers. The 61-year-old already has a job at a hospital but said driving for Uber part-time could help her cover college tuition for her children. Uber drivers are responsible for maintaining their own vehicles but get to set their own hours, an idea that appeals to Keeping.
"I haven't found the right scenario for work," she said. "I'm social. I love to drive. I'm ready to roll as soon I can."
New York City taxi driver Ayman Ahmed said Uber may be a good fit for people looking for part-time work, but not for full-time taxi drivers. Ahmed left the taxi business to drive for Uber for six weeks, only to find it a disappointment. He said it doesn't pay as well as driving a cab.
"Uber hires anyone. It might work if you need a few hours. But this is the only job I have," he said. "I have rent, kids, a wife."