TAMPA — The number of ride services in Tampa is growing, whether the Public Transportation Commission likes it or not.
Uber, a ridesharing service that lets customers use a smartphone to find a driver, said late Friday afternoon the company has started offering its UberX service in Tampa. The announcement comes only a few days after Lyft, which offers a similar service, began operating in the city.
Both are part of a new wave of companies offering services that challenge the way traditional taxi and limousine services operate. With UberX and Lyfft, customers use an app to find drivers, who often aren’t professional drivers and use their own cars. Rates can fluctuate and could rise during high-demand periods.
Both companies appear to be operating in violation of Hillsborough County’s Public Transportation Commission. The commission, which regulates taxi and limo companies, bans services that don’t meet certain criteria, particularly on rates and waiting times. The commission turned down Uber’s request to offer rides during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, sparking a legislative effort battle over whether local regulatory bodies should have that authority.
Earlier this month, Uber officials appeared to be watching that fight play out in the Florida Legislature.
Friday afternoon, though, the company sent out an email saying it was beginning service in Tampa, effective immediately. As part of the launch, the company will offer free rides, up to $50, for two weeks.
Asked why the company decided to launch instead of waiting to see what happened in the Legislature, Uber spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo said the company was responding to customer demand.
“Over 10,000 Floridians have signed a petition demanding more transportation options in cities across Florida – and Tampa Bay residents have been clamoring for Uber’s arrival,’’ Montalvo wrote in an email response to questions from the Tribune. “Uber is dedicated to offering more choice, reliability and efficiency for consumers – and increasing opportunities for drivers. We look forward to continuing the legislative process to bring UberBLACK to expand consumer choice and modernize Florida’s transportation ecosystem.’’
Unlike UberX, UberBlack’s model tends to work with existing taxi/limo companies in a market, providing them the systems for reservations, mileage meters and billing.
Prices for UberX after the free two-week period will vary, but will be “35 percent cheaper than a Tampa taxi,” Uber advertises on its website.
Justin Kintz, spokesman for Uber Technologies, said the company does not believe UberX is in violation of the “antiquated” local rules governing chauffeured rides. “Regulations in most areas havne’t caught up with our brand-new business model,’’ he said.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring legislation that would allow Uber to operate in Hillsborough County. He said his legislation was aimed more at Uber’s premium ride service, UberBlack, than UberX.
“Ultimately, though, I think this shows the incredible demand for these services that exist in our market,” he said of UberX’s announcement.
Yvonne Yolie Capin, a Tampa councilwoman and one of the the city’s two representatives on the Public Transportation Commission, said she is sympathetic to the idea of a company participating in an act of “civil disobedience” to change the rules.
At the same time, she said, “The rules are in place and they’ll just have to deal with that.”
She said she worries the movement to be hip and progressive overlooks the need to ensure public safety by making sure drivers and vehicles meet certain standards.
“I’m afraid if we’re not careful, you could put the public in jeopardy,” Capin said. “Buyer beware because nobody is looking our for you. There are consequences and it could be the public that pays the price.”
Paige Thelen, spokeswoman for Lyft, said none of its drivers have been cited by the PTC in the week since the company began service.
“It has been going well,” Thelen said. “The drivers are excited. The passengers are loving the Lyft experience.”
She said Lyft is eager to have a conversation with city leaders about Lyft and its business model.
“It’s always great when customers have more options to choose from in getting around their city,” Thelen said.