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Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Hillsborough County rules stifle new business, preserve status quo

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Hillsborough County is all about innovation, jobs and keeping the economy in perpetual forward motion — unless you’re a startup business with a newfangled idea that threatens the status quo.

Say, like Uber and Lyft. They are ride-share companies popular with younger people, and they recently set up shop here. They’re a niche product, and no real threat to traditional cab companies.

The county has made it clear they aren’t welcome.

Public Transportation Commission taxi cops have been handing out $800 fines to drivers they catch from these services, and doesn’t that send a dandy message about our attitude toward anything new and different?

It’s frustrating.

“The PTC needs to go away or adapt to the times,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. “They have a horse-and-buggy mentality in an iPhone era.”

Alas, beyond lending his voice to this debate, Buckhorn is essentially powerless to get the PTC to back off. This is the county’s crackdown, and the timing couldn’t be more interesting.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the county commission was a no-show in the craft beer debate in Tallahassee because, in the words of Commissioner Sandy Murman, “It’s not our fight.”

I mean, why would it suit commissioners to support innovative local brewers trying to grow their businesses right here when big breweries and distributors have so much more political muscle?

It just shows that while their mouths say they love small business and innovation, the county commission’s actions frequently say something else. Whether commissioners (Mark Sharpe excepted) want to accept that or not, this just looks like the old guard protecting the other old guard.

I think I know the problem here.

Rather than set up shop and offer a service that could challenge the traditional cab companies, Uber and Lyft should have gone to the commission and asked for public subsidies in the name of creating jobs. It worked for Bass Pro Shops and Amazon.

They even could have shot for the moon and asked voters for a Community Ride Tax to subsidize their business. It worked for the Bucs.

They could have gone to Tallahassee and asked the Legislature to give them tax breaks to build their businesses.

But no, Uber, Lyft and the craft brewers are trying to build businesses the old-fashioned way, by meeting the needs of a new-fashioned audience. That’s an audience the commission apparently doesn’t understand.

So, we get what we get — the long arm of the PTC, enforcing rules designed to stifle competition and preserve the taxi monopoly. After all, the newcomers haven’t gone through the licensing and other regulatory requirements the cab companies helped create.

So, um ... just tossing out an idea here: How about changing the rules?

These new services say they take a more social approach geared toward younger people (the kind the city and county are desperate to attract). It’s called developing a business model that fits the new economy.

The commission should, to paraphrase Ms. Murman, make this its fight. Every business changes, you know. Just ask traditional retailers, cable TV, restaurants and, yes, newspapers. We all have to adapt. Schools change, churches change.

Shouldn’t the act of hailing a ride change, too?

“They can’t even get their foot in the door,” Buckhorn said. “If competition comes in the door, it will drive prices down.”

And people benefit. Apparently, though, just not the “right” people.

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