Hillsborough state legislators weigh scrapping transit committee

12/14/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Once a year, Hillsborough County’s state legislators meet ahead of the legislative session to discuss local bills. Today at USF’s Tampa campus they talked about six of these. One bill in particular garnered passionate testimony. It was Senator Rhonda Storms’ bill, which, in its original form, would have done away with the county’s Public Transportation Commission (PTC).

"The PTC is the only transportation regulatory commission in the State of Florida. Sixty-seven counties in the State of Florida, sixty-six of them do it differently. Sixty-six of the counties have it under their County Commissions."

Several times, Storms cites the November elections as a call for reducing government regulation.

"We received a mandate and the mandate is this: they want us to stop wasting money, they want us to be more efficient, and they want us to do more with less. And they want us to increase accountability. This has been an agency that has been just plagued with scandal and difficulty over the years. In my political life, as long as I can remember."

The only agency of its kind in the state, the PTC formed in 1976, and oversees companies that run taxi cab and limo services. It has been criticized for things like hiring a lobbyist who once worked on the election campaign of a PTC Board chair, and squeezing an electric shuttle service out of existence. Dozens of people, many of them cab drivers, weigh in today. Boubaker Chekkar says the fees and regulations imposed on cab drivers hurt his income.

"I'm a cab driver for almost 7 years and I see no benefit for myself or for every single driver that you're looking at out there. What matters here is that the PTC is doing nothing for us, but for the companies so the fact is that we have to work over hours. Which is most of the drivers they've been driving over a hundred hours a week to survive."

Frank Stewack tells the delegation that for a commission charged with regulating limo and cab drivers, it doesn’t do a whole lot of regulating.

"They don't care anything about the cab drivers or the public. They allow drivers to drive 24 hours. I mean, that's insane. It's just, for the public, for the drivers, for everybody. They do nothing to implement a 12 hour lease, or something like that. They can drive 24 hours, they let town cars solicit at the airport. I mean, no one patrols the airport. You can come in there with a sign saying 'I'm here for a pickup' and no one asks questions, no one knows nothing. They just come in and go. Meanwhile we're waiting on this line for five hours, and PTC does nothing about it."

But numerous limousine operators oppose Storms’ bill. Limo company owner David Shaw says the PTC has a positive impact on the industry for numerous reasons.

"They've regulated our industry for over 20 years that I've been in the industry. Commissioners always work with the industry in establishing rules, and the inspections of vehicles. Handling special events such as the Super Bowl that have been here in Hillsborough County, have always been done with extreme care and protected our public from ... uninsured vehicles to operate within our county."

Both the Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commission oppose the bill. The county is against it in part because if the PTC were to be abolished, the responsibility for regulating cabs and limos would fall squarely on Hillsborough. The County Commission may take up the issue as early as tomorrow, but Commission chair Al Higginbotham says the county doesn’t have the staff needed to take on the extra work.

"You have an industry that's come a long way from being called cabbies to professional drivers, professional operators. That goes a long way. Where do we balance the staff that we're cutting, the budgets that we're cutting? Is this truly a measure of cost savings?"

The delegation unanimously approves a substantially altered version of the bill. If it is passed by the state Legislature, every effected municipal governing body would then weigh in on the whether the PTC should be done away with. State Senator Arthenia Joyner:

"You need to know that initially the bill was to dissolve the PTC. It was amended to say that that would only occur after a thorough review by the County Commission and after a majority vote, 50 plus 1, of the Tampa City Council, the Temple Terrace City Council, Plant City City Council, and the Hillsborough County Commission."

But they table a bill State Senator Jim Norman proposed that would reauthorize the PTC, limit the amount of permits it can issue each year, and designate limousines as luxury vehicles. The two bills relating to the PTC took the bulk of the morning agenda, but the delegation also discussed four other bills. Two deal with government employee pension policies, one would extend the county’s small business bond education program, and one involves issuing an alcoholic beverage license for special events at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. Resident Ron Pitts objected the bill during public comment.

"You need to stop it. I understand it's nothing wrong with liquor, but I understand this is a state that deals with substance abuse and you don't need to continue to give licenses streamlined, or you ... go the easy way just because you can. There's certain places to sell liquor and certain places not to. And you need to, at some point, to have a reservation. You slide on this one, I'm going to tell you right now, it's a mistake. You keep pushing bills like this in this part of town, it's not good in this area, especially."

Senators Ronda Storms and Darryl Rouson voted against the bill. Senator Rouson:

"I certainly understand the social value, the economic value for special events but at some point we may be going down such a slope. Adults ought to be able to support a charitable event, and go places, and not always have to have their right to purchase alcohol."

The state legislature begins its session on March 1, 2011.

Previous WMNF coverage of Public Transportation Commission

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