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Uber battle moves to direct mail, billboards

The taxi wars in Tampa are turning personal.

Ride-sharing company Uber has started a direct mail campaign in specific neighborhoods, pointing an accusing finger at individual politicians on Hillsborough County’s taxi and limo governing body, and saying they’re siding with taxi companies against local residents and limiting “consumer choice.”

Those politicians, in turn, are calling such mailers “illegal” political advertising and they’ve authorized a month-long billboard campaign around the region, warning people against taking unlicensed taxis.

Meanwhile, this area is fast becoming a legal test case for Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services, as the local Public Transportation Commission on Monday held a judicial hearing over just what constitutes a “taxi” anyway, and whether Uber is subject to local taxi rules.

“This is the first case I’ve seen like this in Florida, if not the whole Southeast,” said Kyle Cockream, executive director of the PTC, after the PTC issued specific fines, not just against Uber drivers, but the company itself. “Some of these drivers now have jury trial dates ... and there are more trials coming.”

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Uber and Lyft, both based in San Francisco, launched service in Tampa this summer, offering similar services. Anyone with spare time and an adequate car can sign up with the services and, if they pass a background check, they can make themselves available for rides. Customers, in turn, download a smart phone app and order rides. The software calculates a fare based on time, distance and other fees and the companies handle the transaction so no cash changes hands.

At any given time, the Lyft and Uber apps will show a dozen or more drivers available in the central Tampa area.

Though popular, neither company is a licensed “taxi” company in this county, and they are operating outside the existing legal framework where the PTC sets rates, issues licenses and generally oversees the local taxi market.

The PTC has had something of a carrot and stick approach to talks with Lyft and Uber. For a time this summer, PTC officers were merely warning drivers they found picking up passengers, particularly at the airport. Then a second phase kicked in when the PTC started issuing fines — which both Lyft and Uber paid on behalf of drivers. More recently, the PTC began a third phase, with officers conducting stings against drivers by ordering rides, then charging them with a criminal misdemeanor. More than two dozen drivers received court summons, and some have appeared before judges.

PTC officials say they’re trying to work out a long list of items with Uber and Lyft, including driver background checks, commercial insurance for drivers, vehicle inspections and perhaps most importantly, rates. The PTC has two general categories for fixed rates: Taxis, which charge by distance, and limousines, which charge a flat beginning rate and hourly thereafter.

Neither Lyft, nor Uber charges those fixed rates.

Uber officials last week told the Tampa Tribune Editorial Board that They were “optimistic” that they would come to an agreement with the PTC over key issues, such as driver background checks and vehicle inspections, but they characterized two topics as “non negotiable.” They will not abide a “delay” of 30 minutes or an hour, as is the case with limos, and they will not abide by pre-set rate schedules.

Cockream said Uber’s three-month estimate was wildly optimistic, and important issues remain unresolved, including insurance coverage, which he said is up to state regulators.

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The PTC currently has a $4,000 advertising campaign on digital billboards around Tampa, warning residents “Be cautious of illegal transportation providers.”

The fight reached a new pitch over the weekend. San Francisco-based Uber sent mailers to thousands of homes across the area: “We deserve to choose how we get around the Bay Area,” one mailer says, adding “Why is Victor Crist trying to block consumer choice?” referring to the chair of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates taxis, limousines, tow trucks and other business vehicles.

Uber sent a similar mailer to voters in the district represented by Al Higginbotham. “Ride sharing services like Uber give us a safe, reliable and affordable way to get around Hillsborough County — but some politicians are standing in the way of giving consumers that choice. Instead, they’re standing with special interest like taxi companies, not standing up for us.”

Lawyers for the PTC and Uber had their first face-to-face showdown on Monday. When PTC officials hand out a ticket to Uber drivers, the PTC also hands a ticket directly to Uber for operating an “ongoing” unlicensed taxi service. Monday, a Hearing Officer, listened to three hours of testimony from Uber and PTC lawyers. Much of the debate centered on whether the Uber app functioned as a “meter.”

Robert Brazel, chief assistant county attorney for Hillsborough County, countered that, “There is no question that Uber is a for-hire transportation company.”

Uber lawyers contended that they’re not a taxi company, and thus citations against them for running a taxi company aren’t applicable. After the hearing, Uber Florida General Manager Matthew Gore said Uber doesn’t even “employ” any drivers. “We’re like Expedia or Hotwire,” he said. “They don’t own planes or hotels. They just match people with planes and hotels.”

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Though Cockream has been negotiating on and off again with Lyft and Uber, he said Uber’s weekend mailers essentially poisoned the well. Added to other direct calls to action by Uber, Cockream said Crist’s office in particular received more than 1,000 emails, and his office phone lines have not stopped ringing.

Crist said he thinks the mailers are illegal because they don’t state who sent them.

“In Florida there are strict guidelines and rules for doing this,” Crist said. “You have to be a specific entity, licensed and recognized by the state. You have to disclose where it came from and where the funding comes from so the public is aware of who’s doing this and paying for this.”

As for the Uber debate itself, “It is not corrupt to uphold the law, and we are upholding the law,” Crist said. “We are enforcing the laws that are on the books to protect consumers.”

Crist is finishing up his first, four-year term on the commission representing the northern part of the county in District 2. He is being challenged by Democrat Elizabeth Belcher in the Nov. 4 general election.

County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who has been on the PTC for about a year, said he doesn’t remember speaking publicly at board meetings about Uber and Lyft. Nor has he been part of negotiations between the commission and the two car-for-hire companies. “I’m not on record as being in opposition,” he said. “That’s why I’m flabbergasted ... I’ve been an advocate for free enterprise and open markets since long before I was elected. I’ve only voiced two concerns: insurance and safety checks.”

Higginbotham, elected to the commission in 2006, is a candidate for the District 7 countywide commission seat. A Republican, Higginbotham faces Democrat Pat Kemp in the Nov. 4 general election.

Asked about the legality of the flier, Uber Spokesman Tyler Bennett responded in an email that “we want to ensure Tampa residents are heard and the PTC listens to their pleas for safer, more reliable transportation options and greater economic opportunity.”

Includes reporting by staff writer Mikell Salinero

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