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Victor Crist unveils idea to “privatize” Hillsborough PTC rules on Uber and Lyft

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(Updated) Can the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission finally find common cause with Uber and Lyft in 2016?

That possibility isn’t necessarily any clearer today, but PTC Chairman Victor Crist is extremely optimistic after he unveiled his proposed new regulations on Thursday. He hopes they’ll end the war between his agency and the two ridesharing companies, which have operated illegally in Hillsborough County for nearly two years.

“The big difference here is a huge policy shift, where we are privatizing what the PTC has been doing,” Crist told SPB Thursday night. “Instead of us doing all of the fee service collections, and doing all of these inspections, what we are proposing is you, the TNC’s (transportation network companies), do it.”

Crist unveiled his proposals on the crucial issues of insurance and background checks at a PTC workshop Thursday morning but emphasized that it’s a work in progress. “We’re merely beginning the dance” that may take several more months before a complete agreement can be struck, he said.

Among the provisions: Drivers of TNC’s must provide “first dollar” personal insurance coverage in the event of an accident. TNC’s will also conduct their own Level II background checks and driving histories.

That may be problematic since both companies have actively resisted such FBI Level II background checks in Florida in the past (they do submit to those in other U.S. cities). The proposed regulations also say that the PTC shall have the option of conducting semiannual audits of background checks.

To add teeth to that provision, Crist said he wants to make any formal agreement about such audits to be a part of a settlement agreement with the two lawsuits that the PTC currently filed against Uber. As a good-faith effort to broker a deal with the company, Crist announced in October that the PTC would halt the lawsuits and appeals intended to shut down Uber. Those negotiations ended, going nowhere. Crist then announced he would hold off of any new regulation proposals and wait to see if the Florida Legislature would produce a statewide law regulating ridesharing companies.

For the third year in a row, the Legislature failed to come up with such a plan. A proposal by Shalimar Republican Matt Gaetz during the recent Session did pass with overwhelming support in the House, but a companion bill in the Senate never made it to the floor.

The proposed new regulations also include annual inspection of all TNC automobiles. Permits will not be issued to vehicles more than seven years old at the time of the application, and vehicles more than ten years old will not be allowed to operate.

The often controversial price surging option would be permitted by the PTC, up to five times the standard rate per mile per ride. The driver or platform must give notice to the customer that such price surging is underway.

The ridesharing companies would pay a one-time registration fee of $540, and drivers would be treated as small business owners, paying $100 a year for an occupational license. But Crist says that Lyft and Uber could give information about those drivers without actually naming names.

“No names, addresses, no email addresses, just the list of numbers’ so that if, for whatever reason, we stop one of these people, we can look on the list and see that they’re legitimate,” he said.

Representatives from Lyft and Uber were circumspect in their reactions.

“We just received a copy of the proposed rules and are currently reviewing the requirements,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson told SPB Thursday evening. “While we have initial concerns, we remain hopeful that we’ll find a way forward that keeps modern transportation options like Lyft available for Tampa residents and visitors.”

“While we welcome a discussion with the PTC about the scope of its authority to regulate ridesharing as well as the development of regulations to govern the industry, the PTC has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to learn about and understand the ridesharing industry it seeks to regulate,” said Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons.

Gibbons added this kicker: “The PTC remains intent on pushing through its own agenda without even considering the regulatory frameworks for ridesharing passed by policymakers in at least 27 states and dozens of other jurisdictions.”

Uber officials also claim that by not providing adequate notice leading up to Thursday’s meeting, the PTC violated the law. They also quote the Florida Administrative Procedures Act, which states that an agency must give at least 14 days notice of a rule development workshop.

Not true, says PTC attorney Cynthia Oster.

“Timely notice of the workshop was provided under Florida’s Administrative Procedure Act,” Oster wrote to SPB in an email Friday afternoon. “Uber representatives were, in fact, present at the workshop. They were also provided with as much time as they wanted to present their position on the proposed rules, which they exercised. Notwithstanding, the PTC, in an abundance of caution and to afford all parties with every possible opportunity to weigh in on these important issues, is in the process of scheduling yet another workshop, to be held at the end of April. The PTC welcomes Uber, Lyft, representatives of all industries regulated by the PTC and members of the public to attend and provide input.

“Notice of the workshop will be provided by the PTC via its website at http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/index.aspx?nid=2595.”

The PTC had a less contentious relationship of late with Lyft than with Uber, who Crist has said didn’t seem interested in working on a compromise agreement in the past. On Thursday, he noted that there were Uber representatives from New York, Washington and Miami, and said that he put the company on notice two weeks ago that the PTC was close to finalizing an agreement with Lyft.

Representatives of the taxicab industry have led the charge for the PTC to get tough with Uber and Lyft. They view the upstart ride-hailing companies as an existential threat. The cab industry says it hasn’t been a level playing field in Hillsborough County for the past two years, while they comply with insurance, background checks and other regulations that Uber and Lyft ignore.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Times reported Thursday that the PTC went on another sting/arrest spree last weekend, citing more than 30 Uber and Lyft drivers for operating unlawfully in the county.

The PTC has gone back and forth with agents citing ridesharing companies since both companies began operating in the county April 2014.

“Despite a judge’s decision and their own concession that the rules on the books today do not apply to the Uber model, the Hillsborough PTC insists on using public funds to harass and intimidate our driver partners,” Uber’s Gibbons said. “We will continue to stand by our partners and defend their right to provide this safe, reliable and valuable service in their communities.”

Reading about the citations outraged Tampa state House Republican Dana Young, who, in a series of tweets on Thursday morning, referred to a local bill that she sponsored in December that she says would have allowed Hillsborough County to regulate the ridesharing companies.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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