An Uber battle, with cars and movie stars, makes way to Tallahassee

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A clash over Uber in the Florida Capitol has all the makings of a big budget movie — black cars, high-tech gadgets and Ashton Kutcher.

The San Francisco-based on-demand luxury car service, which uses a smartphone app that connects drivers and riders, is locked in a fierce turf war with the Florida Taxicab Association.

Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida writes that Uber essentially wants to stop minimum charges for limousine services, ranging from $50 in Tampa to $125 in Miami, as well as remove “outdated” local regulations such as minimum wait times, which in Miami-Dade County is one hour.

After unsuccessful attempts in both Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties, Uber took its case to Tallahassee.

Local officials refused to redraft the rules on taxis and limousines to open the door for Uber to provide additional transportation options.

Although it operates in 35 countries and more than 400 cities, in Florida, Uber only operates in Jacksonville, where lawmakers were more accommodating and rewrote the rules last fall.

Tampa and Miami have “chosen to keep up the status quo, which is broken,” said Uber Public Policy Director Justin Kintz.

Uber called on some of Tallahassee’s most influential lobbyists to support its case – Jennifer Green, Ron Pierce, Marty Fiorentino and former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Al Cardenas—and recently became a member of  Associated Industries of Florida.

Among the tech-company’s fans are U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who last week made a presentation on regulation and innovation from Uber’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. The senator singled out his Miami hometown for its “outdated regulations that limit consumer choice and protect existing monopolies.”

Uber also promoted an online petition to “Move Florida Forward.” Within days, 10,000 individuals signed up to tell lawmakers to “stand up for innovation, not special interests” and support bills moving control of taxicabs and limousines to the state. Representatives even presented a clip of  Kutcher, an Uber investor, to the Senate Transportation Committee members. In the clip, Kutcher blasted Miami-Dade regulations.

“Basically it’s like mafioso, like village mentality of like we’re not going to let the new guy in. Like in Miami,” Kutcher said in a February interview with Jimmy Kimmel.

The video did not go over well in the Senate.

Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Brandes also suffered an Uber disappointment when he failed to pass a pared-down version of a bill to prohibit local governments from establishing rules and regulations on limos and taxis, such as minimum rates and wait times.

Brandes’ revised bill would restrict “special districts” from limiting “the use of chauffeured limousines for hire using digital transportation request services by requiring a minimum wait time, requiring a minimum fare” or capping the number of permits issued for limo operation.

Brandes told the News Service on Thursday there will be a meeting next week on the bill, but admitted the plan is in jeopardy as the end of the 2014 term approaches.

“Time marches on. And we must allow for innovation to benefit Floridians,” Brandes said. “I believe this will allow for dynamic new transportation options to be offered in Florida.”

Brandes’ modified proposal would apply only to the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission — the committee that supervises taxicabs and limousines in Tampa.

The delegation from Hillsborough County rejected a local bill by both Brandes and Rep. James Grant eliminating the Public Transportation Commission.

The pro-Uber legislation faces formidable opposition from Mears Transportation, which services Disney properties, as well as the Florida Taxicab Association.

In addition, many counties and cities do not want their power passed on to the state.

The Florida Taxicab Association issued a press release attacking Uber for “rating” riders, which could lead to discrimination against passengers. The coalition has tried to portray Uber as an elitist business catering only to wealthy riders who have smart phones and credit cards. Both are required for an Uber account.

Several decades ago, the state Public Service Commission regulated taxis and limousines. Lawmakers changed that because they felt local governments know more about the needs of residents, businesses and visitors, according to lobbyist Ron Book, who represents the Florida Taxicab Association and several counties and municipalities.

A Hillsborough County-only bill is not a solution, Book said.

Victor Crist, chair of the Hillsborough PTC, acknowledged the group has troubles, but he insists that it is turning around.

As a former state legislator and Hillsborough County Commissioner, Crist realizes taxicabs and limousines must be treated differently. Limos are a luxury service with looser rules on the places they can operate.

Taxis offer services 24/7 throughout the region and require posted rates.

Uber wants it both ways, Crist told Kam, by offering taxi-like on-demand services with flexible rates, just like a limo. Crist also criticized Brandes and Grant for “disrespecting” both the Hillsborough delegation and constituents.

“It’s a heck of a thing that you couldn’t get your local legislators to sign off on this and now you’re trying to back-door it through the process using friends in Tallahassee,” Crist said in a telephone interview with the News Service of Florida.

Brandes said he only wants to get rid of “arcane regulatory burdens … meant to protect (the) taxi market from competition.”

Business travelers to the region will want to use Uber, or similar apps, after they arrive in Florida airports, Brandes said.

“This is the future of transportation,” he added. “Whether it happens this year or in a subsequent year, I think ultimately, for a tourist economy like Florida to not offer these services, for a business economy like Tampa, Orlando and Miami are, to not offer these services makes us look like a political backwater.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.