Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission faces an uncertain future 

The PTC continues to battle strong opposition on the right and the left.

When Cesar Padilla announced his retirement last month after a tumultuous six-year reign as executive director of Hillsborough County’s Public Transportation Commission, there were few tears shed anywhere.

Adjectives like “beleaguered,” “embattled” and “besieged” seemed always to be attached as a prefix to Padilla’s name in the press, but the revelation that he had been moonlighting from his PTC post over the past two years as a security guard quickly became his epitaph. Further humiliation ensued when Hillsborough County Chief Deputy Jose Docobo informed Padilla that he had failed to meet the requirements as a reserve sheriff’s deputy (needed for the security job), and ordered him to turn in his deputy equipment and credentials and cease any law enforcement activity.

But to tell you how low the bar has been dropped when it comes to the ethical reputation of the PTC, Padilla’s ignominious downfall hardly qualifies as the agency’s worst moment in recent years.

No, that would have to be when former County Commissioner Kevin White was busted two years ago taking bribes for helping tow company operators get permits in his role as PTC chair. White is now almost halfway through his three-year sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

Padilla’s meltdown certainly didn’t enhance Victor Crist’s quixotic battle to save the PTC from potential elimination by fed-up Bay area lawmakers in Tallahassee. But what may hurt Crist’s chances as much as the agency’s previous history of corruption is the perception that it is stifling the entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it comes to a sexy new startup.

Victor Crist was a state legislator representing North Tampa for 18 years before he ran for the District 2 Hillsborough County Commission seat in 2010. He ran and won again last year, with his only serious competition coming from Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert in the GOP primary. He took over as chairman of the PTC less than a year ago.

To hear him describe it, Crist quickly learned that the inner workings of the agency were a mess. “Over time it’s become very exclusive, staff-driven, short-sighted and unreceptive to the consumer, and a little too close to the industry it serves.” So he says he’s been working on basic reforms to fix it, such as having human resources define what each member of the seven-member staff actually does, employing better accounting procedures, having more transparency, and clarifying ethical standards.

But even with state legislators saying that now’s the time to kill the agency outright, Crist is bullish on the PTC, and says it’s worth reforming.

Say what?

“The biggest problem the PTC has is that nobody really understands what it is,” he said of the agency, which was created by the state legislature in 1976 to regulate taxis, limousines, vans and basic life-support ambulances in Hillsborough County. No other such entity exists in the state of Florida.

He admits that before he took over he wasn’t sure what to make of the agency because of its unrelentingly miserable public image, but now he’s its top cheerleader, saying, “It’s less bureaucracy, it’s less expensive, and, if run correctly, more transparent and more receptive” than what is happening throughout the state.

Crist says that without the the PTC, hailing a cab or town car in the county would be the equivalent of the “wild, wild west,” with “everybody walking around with a holster around the waist shooting at everybody.” By that he means that the agency’s set of rules and regulations benefits consumers. County Commissioner Les Miller, who also serves on the PTC, agrees.

“When I first got to the Legislature in 1992, I took a taxi from the airport in Tallahassee to the Capitol,” Miller told CL last week. “I prayed that we didn’t break down. You don’t have that issue in Hillsborough County … You can talk to people in those other counties. They have some serious problems that we don’t have.”

Critics say that’s b.s.

“The regulations are the reason why it’s not the wild, wild west,” says Ken Lucci, who owns several limousine companies in both Pinellas and Hillsborough County. He agrees that vehicle rules and annual inspections are necessary, “but I would disagree with him in saying that the PTC is the reason. That’s a political statement.”

And Lucci calls dealing with the agency an “administrative nightmare,” referring to what happened when he decided to create a separate company to operate his big vehicles under a separate insurance policy. He said he was able to make the change on the state level going to the Department of Transportation website and paying $14.

But making that same change at the PTC level involved a vote by the PTC board and a $500 charge.

To Jeff Brandes, a special agency created back when Gerald Ford was president is no longer relevant in 2013. “How is this vital to consumer safety in Hillsborough County, but it’s not vital to consumer safety in Pasco, Manatee, Pinellas or frankly most other counties in the state of Florida?” he asks.

Brandes is not an insignificant presence here. He’s Transportation Committee chairman in the State Senate, and he and Representative Jamie Grant have been vocal in attacking the agency on a number of fronts. First and foremost, they claim that it stifles innovation and entrepreneurship when it comes to enabling alternatives to the taxicab.

The recent history of the PTC shows the agency doing just that. In 2009, it shut down four free electric vehicle shuttle services that didn’t charge fares, but instead generated income via ads posted on the cars themselves.

A majority of the commission bought the argument made by the attorney for Lou Menardi, the owner of Red Top and Yellow Cab companies, that the advertisements were indeed compensation, which put the electric vehicles under PTC jurisdiction.

Tampa attorney Brian Willis remembers the electric shuttle as “the quickest and cheapest way to get between the South Howard area and Channelside downtown.” The PTC’s ban left him with a bad feeling about the agency, and he calls their reaction “the best example of them crushing innovation. All the people who were starting those go-carts were just meeting a need.”

The perception of PTC as an enemy of entrepreneurship has united some strange political bedfellows. Willis is a co-founder of Connect Tampa Bay, which advocates for more transit options, but in this instance he’s working with an occasional foe, the aforementioned Sharon Calvert. The two of them, along with Connect Tampa Bay’s Kevin Thurman and conservative blogger Laura Lee Rambeau, recently met with Representative Grant to talk about their issues with the PTC.

One big issue: the $50 minimum fare charge for limos, a rate installed years ago at the request of the limo industry to create separation from cabs.

It’s something that seems to benefit entrenched interests in the county, but not every limousine driver or company is happy about it. Last month the libertarian-oriented Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit against the PTC, claiming the minimum fee violates the due process clause of the state constitution, as well as the equal protection clause, by restricting limos but not taxis or luxury taxis.

“I take phone calls every day from customers that don’t understand why they need to be charged $50 for something that you’re only going a couple of miles,” said Thomas Halsnik, owner of Black Pearl Limousine and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “I should be able to charge a price that’s fair to them and gives them more options for transportation.”

The $50 minimum fare is why Uber — the tech-savvy alternative to traditional taxi service that has spread to over 20 cities in the country over the past couple of years — is not doing business in Hillsborough County, or any other place in Florida yet. They’re also blocked by an even larger minimum-fare rate in Miami ($70), though an ordinance to be voted on later this month could eliminate that rate.

“We think that competition is better for consumers, it’s better for drivers and it’s better for cities,” says Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian.

Uber, partnering with existing limo and town car companies, allows anyone with a smartphone to order a limo or town car ride. But Victor Crist contends the reason Uber isn’t doing business in Tampa is because no local company wanted to part with 20 percent of their profits.

Uber’s Hourdajian denies that, saying that Uber actually creates a “huge demand for drivers” in cities around the country. She says that many current livery drivers who may now only be doing a couple of pre-arranged airport trips can now turn on their Uber app and provide more rides and make more money. Ken Lucci agrees, saying that Uber was rejected by the PTC before the company even got to local operators due to the minimum-fare issue.

Commissioner Les Miller denies the PTC stifles competition, saying that at a recent board meeting “the number of permits we gave out was off the chain.” Regarding Uber, all he will say is that they “are being sued all over the country for what we do right.”

(Uber has been sued by cab drivers in San Francisco and car service companies in Chicago, and last month two Uber drivers filed a new class-action lawsuit in San Francisco on behalf of all the company’s drivers, claiming that Uber takes half of the 20 percent tip that’s included for the driver in the fare.)

Contrary to what’s been reported in Tampa media, however, Uber is not in Jacksonville at the moment, though they hope to be, as well as in Miami and Tampa.

There are other apps that provide car service that aren’t as well-known. One is Ride Command, produced by Maryland entrepreneur Alan Stapleton. He calls his service the first reverse auction bidding for car service, whereby a customer places a ride request and can either take the flat price that comes back or goes to reverse bidding, with the car companies having to choose if they want to submit a lower price. Stapleton says his is a software company, not a transportation company, allowing him to keep the PTC dogs at bay.

As far as the $50 minimum fare goes, Commissioner Crist is willing to revisit the limit. But he says those are “external rules,” and his focus is on internal issues, which now include finding a replacement for Cesar Padilla.

Several observers say that the PTC should be folded into the county. Mayor Bob Buckhorn says that would take the politics and ethical lapses out of it, and would encourage companies like Uber to come to Tampa. “It would encourage more competition, which is only a good thing.”

Former PTC lobbyist Vic DiMaio also thinks the county should run the organization. During the Kevin White era, DiMaio was paid $3,000-$5,000 a month to serve as a lobbyist for the group. Because the PTC is a state agency, he had to take trips to Tallahassee for the most menial of tasks.

The PTC recently spent $72,000 to hire the lobbyists Corcoran & Johnston, which Crist says is essential to make sure nothing happens without the agency’s consent in Tallahassee. But the move to hire a public relations firm went too far for some critics, and he retreated from doing that — for now.

“Ridiculous,” says Sharon Calvert about the PR idea. “Does Crist think better messaging brings innovation and competition to our area? Does Crist think better messaging stops unethical or illegal activities that have been associated with this commission?”

The PTC chair is well aware of that mentality as he prepares to present his plans to the state legislature next spring. But local legislators will meet later this year, and they could very well pass a bill that will kill the PTC.

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