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Pinellas legislative delegation split on PSTA partnership with Uber

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Members of Pinellas County’s legislative delegation heard a number of issues during a meeting Tuesday morning, but none was more heated a debate than a pilot program planned for the county’s transit agency.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller had just two minutes to list his legislative priorities this session. That includes a $1 million ask for final design funding for the proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line that would create an express route from connecting downtown St. Pete and the beaches via First Avenues North and South. Miller made the same ask last year, but was turned down.

But the biggest issue was his mention of a partnership between PSTA and Uber. Miller is planning to launch a test program in the East Lake community that would allow users to hail an Uber from their smart phones instead of taking a bus.

The pilot is planned for East Lake because bus routes were canceled in the area due to cutbacks and low-ridership. The idea is to see how residents respond to subsidized Uber rides and then potentially expand the service into other areas.

But the location posed a problem for several legislators.

“Who picked East Lake?” state Sen. Jack Latvala asked with a look on his face hinting he omitted a bad word or two. “That’s a bad idea.”

The pilot is modeled after one in Gainesville where students and faculty can use Uber for a maximum fee of $5 to get around campus. Any excess fare is subsidized through the transit agency. Latvala said East Lake is nothing like a college campus – it contains families and professional adults, not students.

But state Rep. Chris Sprowls, whose district includes East Lake, said the area may actually be a great candidate for the program.

“I can tell you as somebody who’s lived in East Lake for a number of years, those people, if they use public transportation at all it’s going to be Uber,” Sprowls said.

Others worried about placing the pilot project in East Lake as opposed to other areas more transit-friendly. The community is comprised of a large percentage of well-off families and individuals less likely to ditch their cars for transit. Areas like St. Pete and Pinellas Park see far more expansive ridership numbers.

Both state Rep. Darryl Rouson and state Sen. Arthenia Joyner echoed that concern.

The conversation also took on a tone reminiscent of past Uber debates, including fears that for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft aren’t required to carry the same insurance or submit drivers to the same rigorous background checks as taxi drivers.

Joyner pressed Miller repeatedly on whether PSTA would have a greater liability risk with Uber drivers. Miller did not answer any of her questions directly but said the agency’s legal department had no reason to believe PSTA would be at risk.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who has been a staunch supporter for expanding Uber throughout the state, made the point that in some cases, Uber drivers actually undergo more rigorous background checks than taxi drivers.

The PSTA program would also meet all of the county’s rules on for-hire drivers – something state Rep. Kathleen Peters said she has a whole different problem with.

And the program isn’t just closed to Uber. Miller said taxi companies are also welcome to participate in the program.

The entire argument served as perhaps a preview of things to come in the legislative session as the Uber debate continues to emerge with lawmakers scrambling for fair regulations that balance taxi companies and those that are for-hire.

The issue transcends partisanship. All three of the delegation’s Democrats expressed concerns over loose regulations in the for-hire realm. But Republicans on the delegation were split with Brandes, Sprowls and Jamie Grant arguing in favor of Uber.

Latvala and Peters clearly expressed reservations while state Rep. Larry Ahern ignored the issue all together to lament a transit system he argued experiences frequently empty buses. State Rep. Chris Latvala was mum.

PSTA was not the only issue tackled during Tuesday’s delegation meeting. Peters introduced a local bill that would give residents in Tierra Verde the option to create its own fire department. Those services are currently provided by the county, but resources are limited.

With only four emergency responders in the Tierra Verde unit, concerns have been expressed that simultaneous calls could lead to catastrophic delays in service.

Peters’ bill would make the issue optional for residents and not serve as a mandate. However, asked whether there was a minimum threshold to put the matter to referendum based on her bill, Peters wasn’t sure.

A handful of former and current board members from the Tierra Verde neighborhood association all opposed the bill.

“The island hasn’t really had an opportunity to discuss this and so the island is uninformed,” said former treasurer Jack Parker, who asked that Peters table the issue until next year.

Another, Matt Gasper, said the bill would create another level of government residents don’t need.

State Rep. Chris Latvala also introduced a local bill aimed at increasing allowable uses for boat slips on the downtown Clearwater waterfront near the causeway. Uses are currently restricted based on a 1925 provision protecting submerged lands. He hopes the bill would allow for increased use of the area including paddle board rentals, water taxis or, as Latvala and his dad joked, carnivals for kids.

Rousson also introduced a measure, but it was withdrawn. He asked other members of the delegation to encourage the Senate to sponsor a version of his bill that would provide $325,000 in additional relief to Chancey Lanard Hodges, who was injured in a car accident in which a St. Pete police officer rear-ended him.

Among other agencies showing up looking for a piece of the 2016 budget, St. Pete College President Dr. Bill Law asked for restoration of capital improvement funds long suspended in the state. He hopes to use that money for a $15 million upgrade to the St. Pete/Gibbs campus’s administration building. It’s the oldest building on SPC’s oldest campus.

Other groups included the Suncoast League of Cities, Dunedin, homeless groups, youth organizations, mental health agencies, museums, schools and an array of healthcare providers.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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