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Uber wants to bury the hatchet with NYC and help with its looming subway crisis

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New York Area Prepares For Super Bowl XLVIII Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Uber sees an opportunity in the looming transit disruption in New York City, nicknamed the L Train Apocalypse. But the ride-hailing giant will have to navigate a political minefield if it hopes to get its way.

Starting in 2019, the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn will be completely shut down for 18 months in order to repair the extensive damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. An estimated 225,000 people ride the L train every day, which is more people than the daily ridership of the Baltimore, LA, and Miami transit systems combined. It will be the longest and most painful service disruption in the history of America’s largest subway system.

Enter Uber. In an op-ed published Thursday in Newsweek, Uber’s New York City general manager Josh Mohrer called for a temporary lifting of regulations to allow nonprofessional drivers crossing the Williamsburg Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan to pick up additional passengers along the way. These wouldn’t be regular Uber drivers licensed by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, but rather commuters from the suburbs outside the city who typically use the Williamsburg Bridge during the morning rush hour.

The program would be similar to what Uber is testing out between Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Mohrer says that by encouraging more carpooling during the L train shutdown, there will be fewer cars clogging the lanes on the bridge, and more room for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service, which operates in a dedicated lane.

“Imagine if a driver commuting into Manhattan could open up the Uber app, enter where they are going, and then be shown nearby riders who are going in the same direction (and get paid for bringing them along),” Mohrer writes. “If allowed to run a pilot program in New York, Uber’s technology can make it easy to carpool. With enough participation, we could significantly reduce the 11,000 vehicles traveling over Williamsburg bridge and carve out space for BRT.”

What Uber is proposing would require a temporary lift of the rule that requires for-hire vehicle drivers to be licensed, tested, and screened by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. And it won’t be an easy lift, considering the bad blood that exists between the company and the city.

Not too long ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a new rule that basically would have halted Uber’s rapid growth in its tracks by placing a limit on the number of new licenses for drivers. Uber responded by flooding the airwaves with ads bashing the mayor, accusing him of being in the pocket of wealthy taxi medallion owners. Uber even embedded attacks against de Blasio in its own app. And in the end, the law was shelved and Uber declared victory.

Now Uber is offering itself to New York as a solution to a looming crisis. Uber’s critics are quick to point out that the company has done nothing to earn quick passage back into the city’s good graces. “Uber’s absurd proposal is a street safety disaster waiting to happen,” said David Beier, president of the Committee for Taxi Safety, a group that lobbies for the traditional taxi industry. “The company has once again revealed its utter disregard for Vision Zero and regulations that exist to keep riders safe.”

Uber has a reputation for flouting regulations and pushing back against attempts by city officials to impose rules on it. But more recently it has positioned itself as an important supplement to public transportation, partnering with employee benefit providers to subsidize its carpool trips and even taking over bus service in an entire Florida town.

Its pitch to New York City may fall on deaf ears in the de Blasio administration, but it could find a friendlier audience with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is a fan of Uber and has a penchant for undercutting the mayor. A source close to Uber said that a state action (aka Cuomo) would likely be all that’s needed to put its plan in effect.