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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
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Road clearing for ride-sharing in Tampa

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Could Lyft go legit in Hillsborough County by Christmas? That’s entirely possible if all things go according to plan, according to public transportation officials, who are now in direct talks with Lyft and other ride-sharing car services over how to let them operate in Hillsborough County — legitimately.

“I’m very optimistic about it,” said Kyle Cockream, executive director of Hillsborough County’s Public Transportation Commission. “Now, I don’t want to be put in a corner, but we may find that by the end of the year that we’re pretty squared away and have a draft that covers a multitude of these issues.”

And many issues there are.

Both Lyft and Uber remain something of square pegs trying to fit into a round hole of regulation in Hillsborough County.

Unlike traditional taxis and limos that are strictly regulated by the commission, ride-share companies like Lyft and Uber work using a different model. Customers download an app on their smartphones and request a ride. Lyft, for instance, then shows a map of available drivers around town. If there’s a mutually acceptable match, the Lyft software dispatches a driver to the passenger, who then uses the app to send payment to the driver. Nearly anyone can sign up to be a Lyft or Uber driver, and if they pass the company’s own background check, they can start picking up passengers right away for extra cash, based on Lyft’s own rate schedule.

Scores of local drivers have signed up for Lyft and Uber.

In response, taxi companies have argued such startups aren’t following the same extensive and expensive rules that taxis and limos must follow: Specific driver background checks, commercial insurance policies and rules that require taxis to pick up any passenger in any neighborhood.

Both sides of that debate have hired public relations firms and lobbyists to press their cases. Over the past several months, commission inspectors have handed out dozens of tickets to Lyft and Uber drivers, particularly at places like Tampa International Airport.

Hoping to find a middle ground, Cockream has spent several months in negotiations with Lyft and Uber over how to bring them into compliance in the area.

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The situation remains especially fluid, but here’s where Cockream says things stand so far with Lyft:

♦ Lyft agreed to put its drivers through so-called Level 2 criminal background checks, and Cockream agreed to buy a $12,000 fingerprint scanner to keep in the commission office to make the process easier.

♦ Cockream said Lyft’s cars should go through official inspections, and they can be done at any accredited mechanic.

♦ Lyft agreed that drivers should go through supervised training, and Cockream said commission officials can help and observe that process.

♦ Cockream remains steadfast that drivers and car companies carry commercial insurance, so he’s asked state insurance regulators to review some proposed policies and issue a ruling. “Even if someone like MetLife came to Florida with a new policy, they’d have to go through the state anyway,” Cockream said.

♦ Lyft has asked for some flexibility with what kinds of cars drivers can use, and Cockream said they’re willing to be flexible on that issue.

Still, a few important sticking points remain:

♦ “Surge pricing.” Typically, Lyft and Uber can raise rates at peak times, partly to lure more off-work drivers to jump into the market. “We haven’t come to a common ground on that,” Cockream said. “They say the price a consumer pays should be what the market will bear, and I understand that. But what happens when there’s a hurricane? We have to have assurances that they’re not going to price gouge.”

♦ “Cherry picking.” Commission rules require taxi drivers to pick up any fare in any neighborhood, but Lyft and Uber systems allow drivers to designate specific neighborhoods and days when they want to work. Drivers can also filter their phone screens to show only passengers with a record of paying well. Likely, Cockream said, ride-share companies will fall more into the limo category than taxi category, because limo companies can accept or decline any customer depending on their business model.

Cockream said there’s a “tremendous difference” in dealing with Lyft versus Uber. Sometimes he’s on the phone with Lyft officials daily. By contrast, Uber representatives have been far less responsive, he said.

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There are wide variations in how different markets are handling the issue. In New York City, ride-sharing companies essentially bought into the existing taxi and limo rules to become new operators there. In both California and Colorado, the state created a new subcategory for ride-sharing companies, though those rules remain in flux.

In Miami, ride-sharing companies did score a victory this month when the Miami-Dade County Commission gave a preliminary OK to a measure allowing drivers for Lyft, Uber and similar services to operate there.

Any agreement Cockream makes with Lyft and Uber would not be a specific deal for them, he said. Rather, it would be a policy the commission could use to regulate and police any ride-sharing company, because the risk would be that any random operator would buy a couple of cars, write a cellphone app and declare itself in business.

Messages sent to Lyft representatives were not returned Thursday.

Taylor Bennett of Uber said, “We continue to have productive conversations with the PTC and feel confident that we’ll work together to develop a sensible regulatory framework for ride-sharing in Tampa.”

As for Lyft and Uber drivers already working in Tampa, commission officers haven’t arrested any, yet, Cockream said. Officers are still issuing citations when they find drivers picking up passengers. “We have some drivers under review,” he said. “And we’ll still enforce the rules.”

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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