Tour operator in Amish country gets in tiff over his tuk-tuk

In this Aug. 8, 2017 photo, Timm Wenger poses with his tuk-tuk in Lancaster, Pa. Wenger’s application to run sightseeing tours in the three-wheeled, six-passenger electric vehicle was denied by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which cited safety concerns. (AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam)

LANCASTER, Pa. — Pennsylvania utility regulators are making a big to-do over Timm Wenger's tuk-tuk.

The 48-year-old entrepreneur wants to use his three-wheeled, open-sided electric shuttle to offer sightseeing tours of Lancaster, the urban core of a region best known for its undulating farms, horse-drawn buggies and large Amish population.

Standing in his way, at least for now: the state Public Utility Commission, which licenses for-hire transportation services and turned down Wenger's application last month, citing safety concerns.

"Instead of doing tours and growing the business, I've spent weeks dealing with the red tape," said Wenger, who has appealed the decision.

Tuk-tuks were virtually unknown in the U.S. until 2015, when a Denver-based company, eTuk USA, began distributing an electric version of the auto rickshaw that's ubiquitous on crowded city streets in Asia, Africa and Latin America. To date, the company has sold 86 tuk-tuks in 26 states and 49 cities.

Wenger and his wife bought a used, six-passenger model that had spent a year in taxi service in Arizona and designed a 30-minute narrated tour of Lancaster's 300-year history, architecture, people and places. The city brims with historic and cultural attractions and boasts the nation's oldest indoor farmer's market, part of a regional $2.6 billion tourism industry that attracts 8 million visitors a year.

Wenger lined up sponsors and planned an April launch, projecting he'd give more than 4,000 people a ride in his first year.

Then regulators put the brakes on. They voted 3-2 to deny Wenger's company an operating license, with the majority asserting his tuk-tuk "would be much more susceptible to rolling over than conventional vehicles" and that passengers would have "much less protection in the event of a collision." They also cited tuk-tuk crashes in England and New Zealand.

Wenger's appeal said the PUC relied on inaccurate information about the vehicle.

Classified as a motorcycle by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the American version of the tuk-tuk has safety features its overseas counterparts lack, said Michael Fox, part-owner and director of sales at eTuk USA. He said electric tuk-tuks are also slower — with a maximum speed of 25 mph — and a lot heavier, weighing more than 2,000 pounds.

In Lancaster, a city of 59,000 about 70 miles (110 kilometers) west of Philadelphia, Wenger's cherry-red tuk-tuk stands out against the well-preserved Colonial and Victorian architecture.

As Wenger chatted downtown a few days ago, his tuk-tuk parked along the curb, one pedestrian gave him a thumbs-up, another said, "Wow! I like this!" and a third asked, "Are you legal yet?"

"We're working on it," Wenger replied.

Lancaster resident Charlie Eberly walked by and wished Wenger luck. Like many, he has been following the tuk-tuk tiff.

"I think it's ridiculous the state's even worried about this," Eberly said. "The people who live here think it's a good thing."

That includes the mayor, police chief and director of public works, who gave the PUC a joint statement of support for Tuktuk Lancaster.

"I think it's a good idea, and fun, and there's not enough fun in life," Mayor Rick Gray told The Associated Press.

Wenger got a bit of good news in early August when the PUC agreed to reconsider his application based on new information supplied by his lawyer.

Separately, he's asked the PUC for a determination that it had no jurisdiction over his business in the first place because Tuktuk Lancaster seeks to offer the rides as entertainment, not as transportation from Point A to Point B. The PUC doesn't regulate ventures in which transportation is an incidental part of the business, such as horse-drawn carriages rides.

Another Pennsylvania tuk-tuk operator, Paul Shaffer, provided curbside hailing service in downtown Pittsburgh for two years until the PUC asked him to stop and apply for a license.

Shaffer said he hopes to win regulatory approval and eventually operate a fleet of 10 tuk-tuks.

"I'm betting my future that they're going to allow these to go forward," he said.

Wenger's also hopeful.

"Lancaster has become a destination," he said. "We want to show off a little bit of that."

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