It shouldn’t be a crime to give your customers a good deal. But the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC) disagrees. Strongly.
In fact, the PTC actually forces certain car service providers to charge customers no less than $50 per ride, regardless of how short the ride might be. If car services don’t comply, the PTC threatens them with fines, license revocation, and even criminal penalties. All of this just for trying to give their customer a better deal. And that’s why the PTC is being hauled into court.
The PTC’s “minimum fare rules” apply for every trip limos and sedans provide, at all times, with no exceptions. Not surprisingly, the effect is a boon to the very taxi companies that support the regulation and oppose efforts to repeal it. More people take taxis, while car services that would prefer to charge less but cannot, sit idle. If you think these rules make absolutely no sense, then you understand them perfectly: A few well-connected industry insiders benefit, while everyone else— from consumers to entrepreneurs — loses.
The PTC claims that its rules are designed to somehow protect public health and safety, but the unspoken intent of these policies is to prevent limousines from offering Hillsborough’s residents a more affordable option for short trips. The result: Customers pay more, innovation is stifled, and entrepreneurs who want to provide alternative transportation options make less.
All in a day’s work for the PTC.
The sordid history of the PTC has been well publicized. A notoriously corrupt entity, it has not-so-secretly done the bidding of its special-interest cronies since its establishment by the Florida Legislature more than two decades ago. A former board member is even serving time in federal prison for accepting bribes in exchange for preferential treatment by the PTC. And despite increased public criticism of the PTC of late, the commission continues to enforce its anti-competitive policies.
Fed up with the PTC’s unconstitutional protectionism, a local entrepreneur and two cost-conscious patrons have teamed with the Institute for Justice to challenge the PTC and its perceived authority to set a minimum fare.
In this country, the government simply does not have the power to decide winners and losers in the marketplace; that decision belongs to consumers. Hillsborough’s limousine drivers have the right to offer more affordable fares to would-be customers if they so choose. And consumers have the constitutional right to purchase — or not to purchase — whatever type of car service they desire, without being shoved in one direction or another by the government.
Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of consumers who desire the right to freely bargain for themselves. The court understands that consumer demand is not only what keeps the marketplace competitive, but that it is also the force that spurs valuable innovation and lower prices. That’s why the lawsuit is being filed on behalf of both consumers and a limousine entrepreneur, whose collective efforts to increase the affordability of Tampa’s transportation market are being sandbagged by the PTC.
The PTC wants to protect some businesses by crippling competitors and keeping Hillsborough County in the transportation dark ages. But consumers should have the right to choose from an array of competitors when determining how to get from place to place. And cars for hire should have the right to provide that service at the lowest cost possible.
Thankfully, there already exists a very useful vehicle for vindicating the rights of Hillsborough’s transportation entrepreneurs and their clients: the Florida Constitution.
Ari Bargil is an attorney with the Institute for Justice, Florida chapter. For more information, visit www.ij.org.