TAMPA — The embattled director of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission is retiring this week, but it’s questionable if his departure will quiet the growing chorus of detractors who want the commission abolished.
PTC executive director Cesar Padilla officially gave notice of his retirement Wednesday to the commission’s chairman, Victor Crist. Padilla has been under fire since last week when it was discovered he was moonlighting as a security guard at a Thonotosassa auction house.
Crist said Padilla told him he and his family had been discussing his retirement for over a year.
“I told him I supported his decision and I wished him well in his future endeavors,” said Crist, who is also a Hillsborough County commissioner.
Crist said he will ask his fellow transportation commissioners at the Sept. 17 meeting to start looking for an interim director. He also sent an e-mail asking County Administrator Mike Merrill to assist in the search.
But some observers are wondering if the transportation commission will survive beyond next year’s legislative session. Several local politicians, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, say the agency is unnecessary and an impediment to technological innovation in the vehicle-for-hire industry that it regulates.
In fact, the issue that might ultimately sink the PTC isn’t Padilla’s moonlighting, but the decision by the rapid-response car company, Uber, to locate in Jacksonville instead of Tampa. The deciding factor for Uber was a PTC-imposed $50 minimum charge for limousines and other high-end cars. The minimum charge does not apply to taxis.
“The PTC has no business deciding what people charge because they’re not a metered car,” said state Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican.
Grant and Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg-based, Republican state senator, are considering legislation to abolish the PTC. The agency was created by state statute in 1983.
“So what we’re going to be left with is that Uber is going to land in Jacksonville instead of Tampa,” Grant said. “Tampa is not supposed to be a backwater place in Florida and we continue to repeat this.”
Critics charge that the PTC is overly political because its board members are all elected officials and accept campaign contributions from the companies they regulate. Serving on the PTC virtually guarantees board members thousands of dollars in contributions from cab, tow truck, limousine and medical transport companies.
A related criticism of the agency is that the contributions give the established vehicle-for-hire companies excessive clout with the board. A recent example: the $50 minimum fare which protects limousine and taxi operators. A local limousine company and two limousine customers announced Wednesday they had filed a lawsuit against the PTC challenging the minimum fare.
Buckhorn recalled a PTC vote in August 2009 to ban neighborhood electric vehicles, which transported people around downtown, from accepting tips in lieu of fixed fares. The taxi industry pushed for the NEVs demise, arguing they weren’t safe.
“It was only because of the power of the cab companies that, what I thought was an amenity for downtown, was eliminated,” Buckhorn said. “It was absurd.”
The PTC is the only agency of its kind in Florida. Its 10-person staff inspects vehicles for hire to make sure they are safe and does background checks on drivers. The result, supporters say, is the safest, most reliable taxi and limousine services in Florida.
“If you take a taxi in Tallahassee, you’re lucky to get from the Capitol to the airport without breaking down,” said PTC board member Les Miller, a county commissioner and former state legislator.
Regarding charges of misconduct leveled at Padilla and previous PTC officials, Miller cites the 1983 arrests of three Hillsborough County commissioners. The arrests resulted in a new county charter that restructured county government.
“Other agencies have had scandals and they didn’t shut them down because of that so why should we shut down the PTC?” Miller asked.
Trying to head off any legislative move to axe the agency, Crist said he will ask county commissioners next month to allow the county’s internal auditor to examine the PTC’s rules and regulations.
Crist also wants the PTC board to schedule a workshop to discuss new transportation technologies, such as the smart phone app used by Uber to connect customers with limousines and taxis.
“We need to get turned around before the (legislative) session,” he said.
The legislative threat is real. Though he said he is willing to give the PTC board a chance to reform itself, Grant said “blowing up the PTC” is an option he and Brandes are seriously considering.
If they decide to go forward, their bill must be approved by a majoirty of the county legislative delegation, probably in December, Grant said.
“What we don’t want to do is blow up an archaic, draconian agency and just replace it with another,” Grant said.