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Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
Commentary

Play by the rules, don’t throw them out


Published:

Two million times a year, people in Hillsborough County get into a taxicab, a limousine or another car for hire, confident that a safe driver will take them in a properly inspected vehicle to their destination for a fair price.

They can do this because we have a system that establishes common sense standards and rules that taxi and limousine companies abide by. These modest rules protect consumers from rogue providers who could put people at risk with unsafe drivers in poorly maintained vehicles or who might charge outrageous fares.

But a new proposal offered by two state legislators would do away with this proven system and abolish regulation in Hillsborough County completely.

In Hillsborough County, the rules for taxis and limousines are established by a user-fee-funded public board, the Public Transportation Commission. The PTC sets the standards that protect passengers from unsafe and unscrupulous operators.

These rules require background checks and drug testing for drivers.

In fact, more than 1,000 background checks were completed last year alone. Currently, the vehicles are safety inspected and must meet insurance and appearance requirements. The accident rate for taxis here is less than 40 percent of the national average.

There is also a complaint monitoring system to ensure customer concerns are addressed. And the number of complaints received is very small, about one for every 12,000 rides provided.

Besides these standards of service for everyone, the system ensures fairness for our most vulnerable, such as the elderly and economically disadvantaged, who often depend on taxis for their most important trips.

In addition to this remarkable performance record, our local livery companies have been at the forefront of choice and innovations for customer service. If you want to hire a car, you have many choices: traditional metered taxi, luxury taxi (larger, more comfortable metered vehicles), flat rate limousines, SUVs and other specialty vehicles.

And when you want to call for one of these vehicles, many companies here are already using the newest app and dispatch technologies available. For example, a new smartphone application, RideCommand, is being Beta tested in our market. This leading edge technology will allow you to call a licensed taxi cab or luxury taxi with only a few taps on your phone. Given this success, it is very disappointing that two Bay area legislators, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, have proposed a measure to abolish the PTC and the regulation it enforces.

Although supporters of this legislation claim customers in the Tampa Bay area will benefit from allowing unregulated companies into the market, the reality is much different. They want to open the door to unregulated dispatch services. By inviting unlicensed and unregulated businesses into the market, customers will be exposed to the risks of potentially less safe drivers and vehicles.

At the same time, responsible taxi and limousine operators could be driven out of business by less-scrupulous competitors who are willing to cut corners in order to cut costs.

Proponents of the legislation have tried to discredit the PTC by pointing to problems associated with some individuals in the past. This isn’t a valid argument, because every branch of government, from city councils to state legislatures, has faced similar ethical challenges. Instead of folding those branches, we fixed them. The same is true of the PTC. In fact, it’s clear the PTC has overcome its past challenges. Today, it is delivering for the people of Hillsborough County by providing a safe and efficient taxi and limousine system.

Tampa Bay area lawmakers are considering the measures they want to support in the upcoming legislative session. The proposal to abolish a successful system that provides millions of safe, reliable and efficient rides per year for the people of Hillsborough County is one idea they should drop.

Fassil Gabremariam is chairman of the Tampa Bay Taxicab & Limousine Coalition.

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