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Bob Buckhorn, others call Hillsborough PTC to reject rules that Uber, Lyft say could drive them out

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Two days before the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission looks to approve new regulations that representatives from ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft say could compel them to leave town, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and others in Hillsborough County’s business community had a simple message for them on Monday: Don’t do it.

Specifically, they warned the agency not to approve new regulations approved by a subcommittee of the PTC last week that include a $7 minimum fare and a seven-minute wait time for passengers — and absolutely do not approve Level II background checks which include having Uber and Lyft drivers fingerprinted.

“We are not going to a city that’s going to be held down hostage by any cabal of any industry,” Buckhorn said, a nod to the fact that the taxicab industry in Hillsborough — as has been the case all over the world — objects to the Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s) operating under different rules of the road.

Since they began operating in Tampa in April 2014, the PTC has been unable to bring the two companies into compliance with their regulations, many of which the companies believe are onerous and out of date. It’s not unique to this community — the ridesharing companies also remain at odds with regulators in Orlando and Jacksonville, for example, while the companies have come into compliance in the past year with local governments in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

But Uber and Lyft did pull completely out of Austin, Texas, earlier this year over a similar impasse regarding those Level II background checks.

Buckhorn also used the opportunity at the press conference to once again call for the outright abolition of the PTC, the controversial agency created by the Legislature in the 1970s to craft regulations for vehicles-for-hire in Hillsborough County. It’s the only such agency in the state.

The PTC’s heavy-handed tactics in previous years have led to the belief by some that it is a handmaiden of the taxicab industry. It’s a perception that only gained more currency when former PTC Chair Kevin White was convicted of charges of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud, and lying to the FBI after he was found guilty of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes and a luxury SUV exchange for helping three prospective wrecker company operators win certificates from the PTC.

“I continue to believe it is a dinosaur,” Buckhorn said about the PTC, a belief shared by Tampa Bay area legislators like Jeff Brandes, Dana Young, and Jamie Grant. “Dinosaurs are extinct. The PTC should be extinct.”

“We are not trying to keep anybody out of the marketplace,” insists Kyle Cockream, the executive director of the PTC. “Instead, the focus is on consensus on regulations that ensure rider safety,” he said in a statement. “We want a solid framework that welcomes TNC’s while making the safety of our riding public a priority.”

Buckhorn was surrounded by more than a dozen people at the news conference, held at the Attic, a downtown coffee shop/bar. Many were representatives of the business community and entrepreneurs who don’t want Uber and Lyft to leave, saying such a loss will hurt with the recruitment of businesses and the retaining and/or luring millennials to stay in the Tampa Bay.

“The whole country took note when Austin passed its draconian legislation,” said Christopher Emmanuel, director of infrastructure and governance policy for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “We ask that the PTC suspend consideration of this extreme rule, and work with the new business and responsible partners that are hoping to bring transportation solutions for Tampa and Florida’s future.”

Tony DiBenedetto is the chair and CEO of a tech company called Tribridge. He said he doesn’t even own a car these days, and instead takes Uber to wherever he has to go.

“I think it’s sending the wrong message to everybody,” he said about the proposed regulations, which could prompt the companies to leave the region. “I think this is a devastating decision on their part. I think it would hurt us from a recruiting perspective; it’s already hard to recruit to Tampa.”

Although the Level II background checks have garnered the most attention, Uber and Lyft have serious issues with other proposed rules going before the PTC board on Wednesday, such as a seven-minute wait time for anyone to hail a vehicle-for-hire car in Hillsborough County.

“You request a ride, said Blayn Shamble, a Tampa Bay area Lyft driver.”It takes two minutes to get there, and now I have to lock my doors and roll my window down and say, ‘I’m sorry, you cannot legally get into my car until five minutes passes.’

“In my opinion, that is just picking your winners and losers in a free market,” Shamble added.

The PTC has said the new rules were promulgated by members of the cab industry and would-be TNC DriveSociety, who are pushing the PTC hard to pass the new rules.

“Are you a believer in public safety?,” shouted out DriveSociety proprietor Marcus Carter after Buckhorn explained how he believed competition was good for business. “You’re not a member of the media,” barked Buckhorn, who later said that he “welcomed” DriveSociety to the industry.

The Tampa mayor also said the cab industry needed to “up their game” to stay competitive with the new technology.

Louis Menardi, the chair of the Florida Taxicab Association and president of Yellow Cab of Tampa, issued a statement shortly before the press conference took place.

“Uber and Lyft’s approach to this issue is not unique to Hillsborough County or Florida,” he said. “All across the U.S., many local communities, including Portland, San Francisco, San Antonio, Austin, and Orlando are raising significant concerns about fundamental public safety issues and background checks, whether TNC drivers have any or adequate insurance, and whether the local communities should require better service from them for passengers in wheelchairs.

“In response, TNCs flout the law, ignore local regulations and resort to threatening local cities and counties with leaving and/or state and federal forced deregulation when they are questioned about their business practices as they relate to public safety and well-being.”

The PTC board meeting on the new rules will take place Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. at the County Center, 601 E. Kennedy, Tampa, 2nd floor.

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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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