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North Fork Uber? Local officials welcome the ride-sharing service

It all started on New Year’s Eve. Caroline MacArthur said she didn’t have any big plans for the night and she wasn’t drinking. She reminded her son to call her if he needed a ride. But why stop there, she thought. Other people could use a ride as well.

“It was a real big joke because I said, ‘My New Year’s resolution: I’m going to become a Uber driver,’” said Ms. MacArthur, who is director of Southold Free Library.

It could be a way to make a little extra money on weekends and save for a new car, she said.

“My 20-year-old son thought that was the funniest thing on the planet,” she said. “It probably is, granted, but then I really started thinking about it. There’s so many bed and breakfasts, so many tourists, so many vineyards, breweries, vodka, wine, beer — a lot of people come out on the Jitney.”

Ms. MacArthur’s resolution begs a question that could potentially be answered as soon as this summer: Is there a demand on the North Fork for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft?

As part of the state’s 2017-18 budget legislation passed earlier this month, ride-hailing companies are set to be regulated through the Department of Motor Vehicles, allowing them to expand services outside New York City.

The law takes effect mid-July, but the DMV still needs to establish rules around requirements such as background checks and what sort of signs drivers need on their cars, according to an Uber spokesperson.

“I definitely know that there’s a demand for it,” said Michael Malkush, who started North Fork Designated Driver, a service meant to provide a way for people to travel between wineries without drinking and driving.

Mr. Malkush said customers often tell him or one of his 10 drivers that they’ll call an Uber for their evening plans after a day of vineyard hopping. And many times he tells them they’ll have to call a cab instead.

People do expect an on-demand service to be available, he said, adding that he doesn’t see Uber’s potential local presence as a threat to his own niche business.

“Any way to make people more responsible when they’re out drinking, to avoid drinking and driving, to me, is a good thing,” Mr. Malkush said. However, he added, he wished North Fork towns could have more control over the transportation network company regulations and receive some revenue from the services. He also hopes locals sign up to be drivers, he said.

“We’re such a unique area — you don’t want this to have a negative effect that we’re not aware of,” he said.

Counties and cities with populations of at least 100,000 people can opt out of allowing ride-hailing companies to operate within their boundaries, according to the law, so Southold and Riverhead towns would not be eligible to do so.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration is reviewing the legislation passed in the recently adopted budget, according to communications director Jason Elan.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town currently has very little cab service and modest public transportation.

“The climate’s changed a little bit out here and I think that it would be a real boon to Southold Town and I’m anxious to see it,” he said, adding that Uber could keep people who should not be driving off the roads. He also said he does not think the town has the ability to regulate transient business.

“I don’t think we should be in the position of regulating and then maybe discouraging Uber,” he said. He said he knows a few Uber drivers have already made their way to the North Fork, working “surreptitiously.”

Southold Free Library director Caroline MacArthur registered to become an Uber driver.(Credit: Kelly Zegers)

On the South Fork, East Hampton Town passed a law in 2014 requiring all for-hire vehicle drivers to have a business address in the town as a way to quell an influx of drivers who are allowed to operate in New York City and come out to the town for summer business. Southampton, too, passed regulations that required Uber to register and pay a licensing fee, as well as have its drivers get permits to operate in the town. The state’s new regulations supersede those local measures.

“Our goal is to offer a reliable affordable ride to everyone everywhere,” Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang said. “I think it’s important to have consistent rules across the state so if a driver goes from one city to another or one town to another to drop someone off, they can get a ride going back.”

Lyft, another app-based ride-hailing service, is in the early stages of expanding, but will be recruiting drivers statewide, including Long Island, according to director of policy communications Adrian Durbin.

Riverhead Town Councilman John Dunleavy, who worked on the town’s taxi ordinances, said Uber could bring some competition to taxi services.

“Competition is great,” he said, adding that he could see people using a ride-hailing app to get to an airport.

Greenport Village Trustee Doug Roberts reached out to Uber via Twitter this week, showing interest in the company being more available on the North Fork.

“I have no idea if they’ll even read it or respond, but I would think the mayor and board would be interested in anything that would ease vehicular congestion and demands for parking in the commercial district,” Mr. Roberts said, adding that he’ll discuss any response he gets with village leadership.

While it might be nothing more than a “fishing expedition” at this point, he said he’s interested in any and all opportunities to help get people around safely, adding that he often uses Uber while traveling for work.

“I’m not sure if the demand is here year round yet, but I am sure it is in the summer,” he said.

Greenport Mayor George Hubbard Jr. said something like Uber would be good for the North Fork as a whole from a safety standpoint, but noted that people often take buses and trains to get to the square-mile village and walk around or bicycle once they arrive.

Ali Tuthill, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, said the service could be a “great addition” to the area, but added that since the law is so new, “there’s a lot of waiting and seeing right now.”

“Generally speaking, our industry is supportive of responsible transportation,” she said.

Uber also points to safety, noting that Suffolk County has the highest drunken-driving rate in the state.

“It’s hard to get around when you want to have a few glasses of wine and you’re sort of forced to drive everywhere,” Ms. Anfang said.

Meanwhile, Ms. MacArthur said, if things pan out on the North Fork, her resolution stands. She registered as an Uber driver before the state budget passed and had passed the company’s insurance and background checks, but her app notified her she was not eligible to drive. She would have had to register separately as a for-hire driver in a place where it was clear Uber could operate.

“This was really just a summer weekend, help out the tourists, make a little money kind of thing,” she said. “I’m not quitting my day job.

“I’m in if they’ll take me,” she added.

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Top photo: Uber rides are requested through a smartphone app, which gives an estimate of how much a trip will cost. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)