Beginning Thursday evening, Lincoln residents were able to get a Lyft, even though the state's Public Service Commission warned the ride-share company not to begin operations in Nebraska without its permission.
Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said in an email that Lincoln was one of 24 new cities in which the company began operations Thursday. The expansion nearly doubles the startup's U.S. markets.
"We believe Lincoln deserves the same modern transportation choices that other cities have," Thelen said in a phone interview from the company's San Francisco office.
Lyft connects people who want rides with drivers through a mobile app linked to their Facebook accounts.
“Some of the friendly drivers in Lincoln include a graphic designer, an entrepreneur and a stay-at-home mom -- all easily recognized by the furry pink mustaches on the front of their cars,” Thelen wrote in an email to the Journal Star.
Thelen said Lincoln passengers who create an account will receive free rides for the first two weeks the service is available.
By offering a free service, Lyft can operate outside the jurisdiction of the PSC in Nebraska, an official said.
"We will continue to monitor the situation," PSC Transportation Director Mark Breiner said on Thursday. The PSC sent letters to ride-share companies earlier this week, stating that it’s unlawful for a "carrier" to do business on any public highway without a certificate from the commission.
The PSC says that Lyft and competing ride-share company Uber, which has announced its intentions to operate in Omaha, risk running afoul of state law.
"It doesn't change any of our concerns as to the potential dangers of the situation, particularly the reliance on the driver's personal insurance to be the primary coverage," Breiner said. "That personal insurance is not effective in a situation where they’re driving commercially, such as they would be as Lyft or Uber."
In the letter to ride-share companies, Breiner warned "any operations that you undertake in the state, as well as the persons who perform any such operations on your behalf, are violating state law. These violations will result in criminal prosecutions as well as civil penalties. Any vehicle that is used in these unlawful operations will be impounded as a public nuisance."
At this time, however, Breiner said the commission is not asking police to ticket Lyft drivers. “We’re making some contacts with Omaha and Lincoln police departments to address the situation, but at this time, no final determination has been made."
Thelen said that Lyft, which also launched in Omaha Thursday, has received the letter from the PSC and that the company wants to have an open dialogue with the regulation agency.
"We do take the state safety concerns very seriously," Thelen said.
She said the company has implemented extensive policies to make sure drivers and passengers feel safe during a Lyft ride.
To become a Lyft driver, Thelen said, a person must undergo training and a background check. She said the company will not allow anyone to become a driver if he or she has offenses that include violent crime, sexual crime, theft, property damage, drunk driving or any felonies on their record.
Drivers must also be 23 or older and have no more than two moving violations (running a red light, for example) on their driving records over the past three years and no major violations (driving on a suspended license, speeding 21 mph or more over the limit) during that same span of time.
The driver's vehicles must be 2000 models or newer and pass a 19-point inspection. Lyft drivers must meet state-minimum insurance requirements, she said, and the company offers a protection plan that augments their preexisting coverage.
In other cities and states, she said, company representatives have worked with regulators to draft laws that allow for peer-to-peer ride sharing without sacrificing public safety.
"It's just a matter of continuing the conversation," she said.
However, Lyft drivers have been ticketed in cities where the ride-share service operates.