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Warnings turn to citations for ride services

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Published:   |   Updated: April 25, 2014 at 05:54 PM

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No more warnings. Officers with the Public Transportation Commission tonight will start handing out fines against any drivers for the upstart Lyft and Uber ride-sharing services picking up passengers in the Tampa area. Potentially $800 a pop.

PTC Executive Director Kyle Cockream did not say what led to the change in policy from warnings to fines, but it follows a path the PTC laid out weeks ago to start by verbally warning any unregistered drivers, and then if need be move on to citations. In theory, fines can run from $30 to several hundred dollars. A driver can receive a $500 fine for operating without a certificate issued by the agency, plus more fines if other factors are brought to bear -- up to a $800 maximum.

Though different in many ways, Lyft and Uber are both based in San Francisco and both entered the market here in Tampa in recent weeks with a similar approach. Would-be drivers sign up with the service and go through company-imposed background checks. Users download a Lyft or Uber app on their smartphone. Customers request a ride via the app and typically no money changes hands because the fare is calculated and cleared through a credit card after the drop-off is complete. Lyft is most recognizable by the large, fuzzy pink mustaches that drivers are supposed to strap on the front of their cars

The city isn’t exactly crawling with non-registered Lyft and Uber drivers.

“We have been out at night, especially in the greater downtown area and have only observed one Lyft vehicle operating,” Cockream said. “A warning was given, as this is the first time we have come into contact with this driver. Generally speaking, we are questioning how many (few) active drivers there are operating in Tampa.”

Cockream said taxi drivers are on the lookout for Lyft and Uber drivers, but “they have only seen a couple Lyft drivers around in the last week or so.”

Though Cockream said he’d rather not disclose his agency’s methods for finding the rare Lyft or Uber driver, he said it was possible that investigators would download the apps and request rides to locate drivers.

Meanwhile, backers of the taxi and limousine industry have cried foul over the whole entry of ride-sharing services in the market, particularly as registered taxi/limo drivers must pass government-imposed licensing requirements, and drive approved cars, and charge approved rates. Both Lyft and Uber claim rates 20 percent lower than traditional taxis, and Lyft recently cut its own prices by 30 percent. Some state insurance officials nationwide, and Taxi industry backers also question if Lyft or Uber have the proper insurance coverage.

Both the ride-share companies and the taxi/limousine industry have hired lobbyists to press their case in Tallahassee to swing the laws their way. In Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn has come down firmly on the side of Lyft and Uber, and called the PTC a burdensome hindrance to innovation. Commissioners with Hillsborough County, which oversees the PTC, have called Lyft and Uber unlicensed interlopers who should follow the same rules that taxi and limo companies do.

Nationally, the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association has spun up a public relations campaign called “Who’s Driving You?” to help sway public opinion and publicize news stories of problems with Lyft and Uber.

As for who will pay the fines here, Lyft officials said that they’ll stand behind drivers and cover the cost of fines. Uber officials have not yet responded to that question.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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