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Friday, Sep 19, 2014
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Middle ground will be found in Uber, Lyft and taxi debate: PTC chairman

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Transportation regulators in Hillsborough County have some bad news for Tampa-area taxi companies, and the Lyft and Uber ride-sharing services that recently started up here: There’s a middle ground to be found, and it won’t make either side happy.

“As a regulator, I’m fine with that,” said Victor Crist, chair of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

During Wednesday’s PTC board meeting, Crist said he met recently with officials from Lyft, and will soon meet with officials with Uber to try and figure out a way for both companies to enter this market and — legally — pick up and drop off passengers around the region.

In this market, the PTC sets rates for transportation, inspects vehicles, conducts background checks on drivers, and requires companies and drivers to carry specific commercial insurance in case of accidents.

By contrast, both Lyft and Uber are California-based start-up companies that say the nation’s transportation networks are in desperate need of modernization. They recruit drivers, who use a smartphone app to locate customers who also use the app to signal they need a ride. When finished with a ride, both companies handle the financial transaction and give riders and drivers a chance to rate each other, and both companies position themselves as a far more social experience than a typical taxi — almost as a way to meet new, like-minded people.

Unswayed by that start-up culture, the PTC has been issuing citations against Lyft and Uber drivers caught in the act of driving passengers, with fines of $800 a pop. (Lyft and Uber officials say they compensate drivers for such costs.)

The dispute between ride-sharing companies and government regulators nearly led to new legislation from Tallahassee last session that could have severely limited the authority of agencies such as the PTC to stop ride-sharing companies from operating. That legislation didn’t survive this session, but a lobbyist for the PTC on Wednesday told board members to expect Lyft and Uber to try again next year, and that major changes often take two or three sessions. In turn, the PTC on Wednesday renewed a contract for lobbyists to press their case again.

Lyft and Uber represent progress in a market well overdue for modernization, said Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. There’s room within the rules to allow for innovation he said. “Listen to the people who are asking for different transportation options,” Thurman told the board, “even if we don’t donate $10,000 to your campaigns.”

Taxi driver Charles Smalling took a different view. “They’re operating illegally,” he said. “Police should be ticketing these people all over the state.”

Taxi driver Brook Negusei said Lyft and Uber were “going around and not respecting laws and not abiding by the rules ... If they were in the banking business and started to make loans [without a license] they’d be in jail today.”

If there’s a middle ground to be found between the sides, the first step may be to sort out insurance.

Louis Minardi, president of Yellow Cab of Tampa said “our argument is not about competition. I can compete against anyone. Their technology is great. It’s not about technology though. If you’re a car service, you need to carry insurance like it.”

Officials with Uber and Lyft say they carry insurance to cover mishaps, and they’re negotiating with MetLife to add more coverage.

In the meantime, PTC executive director Kyle Cockream said his officers will likely continue to write citations against Lyft and Uber drivers they find driving around passengers. The PTC will hold off arresting anyone or impounding cars — partly to help keep up a dialogue with Lyft and Uber to find some kind of middle ground. As Cockream told the board, “We’ll work it out.”

rmullins@tampatrib.com

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