Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission responds to criticism by spending $90,000 on lobbying

06/12/13 Janelle Irwin
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Responding to criticism that it should just go away, the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission will spend as much as $90,000 on a lobbyist to stay afloat. The board’s chair, Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, said people need to learn more about the agency before condemning it.

“This agency, this entity, is under attack. It’s under attack by the media. It’s under attack by legislators. It’s under attack by the community. It’s under attack by people who do not fully understand why it’s here so they don’t appreciate it.”

The commission regulates vehicles for hire which includes taxicabs, limos and even ambulances. It’s the only agency of its kind left in the state. Former Republican State Senator Ronda Storms called for its removal in 2010 saying the area needs less government, not more. The issue came up again recently when the company Uber complained they were forced to charge a minimum fee of $50 during the Republican National Convention last summer which was triple a normal fare. Local cab companies don’t want the fee lowered or eliminated. Louis Minardi owns Yellow Cab.

“Well, for the RNC, you’re not going to get a town car or a limousine for $50. It’s like prom night. It’s like the hotels. You’re going to stay three days; you’re going to pay three times as much the rate. The minimum is what they set, not the top end of it. You’re not going to get them for $50 anyway. So, this dream that they wanted to have these town car services for $50 – it’s not going to happen. Nobody got that.”

But the unbending rule intended to separate regular taxicabs from more luxurious car services prompted Uber to flee the area after the convention. The company uses a smart phone application to hail a cab with the touch of a screen. The service sends a shiny black town car and charges a credit card instead of collecting the fare at the end of the ride. Robert Searcy, president of United Cab Company, said Uber came into Tampa claiming to fill a need.

“Every taxi cab company here – Yellow Cab Company with Mr. Manardi, United Cab Company – we have apps, we have online reservations. Everywhere I’ve worked have had online reservations for 10, 15 years. So, there’s no unmet need. All these people are wanting to do is sock off 10-20% profit without having any expense short of somebody saying, ‘here’s a phone call, you go get it.’”

Searcy also worries lifting the minimum fee for companies like Uber could wrangle some business away from taxicab companies.

“So, the point is, how do you keep, during slow times, limousine operators or sedan car operators from coming onto cab stands and hawking their wares for less than the meters on a taxi cab? Hence the $50 an hour…”

But any time a company shuts the door on doing business in the Tampa Bay area it’s a punch in the face to elected officials who are looking to bring more jobs to the community. During a meeting earlier this month, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn suggested the county might be served better without the Public Transportation Commission. Kevin Thurman is with the grassroots group Connect Tampa Bay, which pushes for expanded transit. He said the non-profit hasn’t taken a stance on this issue, but there is something to the argument for doing away with the commission.

“We need more options for transportation around here and that includes private options. We can’t have a public transportation commission that’s inflexible in providing those options. There’s a lot of focus on a single company or this company or that company, but it goes back to two years ago. People just wanted to use smaller cars to get around downtown and other areas. It would actually ease congestion and give more options and the PTC wasn’t flexible with that either. So, the concern is, how do we create more options for people? We need this organization to do that and if they refuse to, that’s when people like the mayor, understandably, are saying maybe we don’t need them.”

Thurman is referring to the street legal electric golf carts that were available in downtown Tampa for free. The service was shut down by the commission in 2010 following pressure from cab companies who pointed out the services weren’t properly insured. Yellow Cab now provides that service. But it’s not just owners of taxicab companies who support keeping the commission around. Vincent Tobert is a driver.

“It’s not really fair to us as cab drivers to have to – somebody comes from Uber – I don’t really know who Uber is, I don’t care. If he’s coming in to disenchant the companies and the drivers of Hillsborough County and viciously attack this council, I don’t approve of it.”

The taxicab industry benefits from some of the commission’s rules, but other regulations can sometimes strangle the business. As it stands, taxicabs have to provide service 24/7 even if staying open comes at a loss. Supporters of the Public Transportation Commission say those rules serve consumers. One member, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, said the public transportation body should hire a lobbyist to squash calls for them to disband for a year – up from an initial motion that would have only paid for 6-months.

“Here’s a group that says, ‘we don’t always agree with you.’ Am I right? ‘But, you’re the greatest thing going.’ And we protect the consumer and that’s the important thing to protect the consumer. I don’t want to see some young, whippersnapper, wannabe speaker of the house or president of the senate come along and do away with this body and they stick their chest out saying, ‘looks, that’s what I did here, elect me as president of the senate or speaker of the house’ and they don’t even know where the bathroom is. I can attest to that. I didn’t even know where the bathroom was – Victor didn’t either.”

The $90,000 lobbyist fee will be paid from the commission’s reserve funds. It appointed a legislative affairs committee to oversee lobbying efforts. Miller will chair the group that also includes fellow Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Tampa City Council members Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick.

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Certificate of Public Convenience & Necessity. What else is there to know? COPCN is a protection mechanism which benefits entenched businesses from competition through influence of government officials who decide if a private business plan meets the publics need. Under current law, a step one must conquer to operate a private for hire service in Hillsborough. Another thing we should all know about the PTC? How about they control the ground transport from the regional transportaion hubs located in Tampa to all counties whose residents use these interstate hubs? This is to include forcing eldery folks on fixed incomes in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, etc to use "luxury limo services" to get home from TIA.

This agency only regulates in Hillsborough County. It is a choice to enter this county to do business. Elderly people can use handciab or taxicab services and do have choices if they want them. See, it looks like there are many assumations here and profound of lack of knowledge.