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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.
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