TAMPA — Speaking to dozens of Uber drivers Wednesday, Public Transportation Commission Chairman Victor Crist assured the black-shirted assembly he was not their enemy.
Then Crist tried to prove it by casting the tie-breaking vote that temporarily halted the ticketing of Uber and Lyft drivers by transportation commission officers. The move was applauded by the dozen or so Uber operators still in the audience after the two-hour-plus meeting.
Just as important as the move to end citations was a vote taken minutes earlier to seek state legislation that would allow the two ride-share companies to operate legally. The draft bill would impose several requirements on Uber and Lyft, including criminal background checks with fingerprinting for drivers, adequate insurance and annual vehicle inspections.
Transportation commission Executive Director Kyle Cockream told the board that Uber is adhering to similar requirements in other cities around the country, including Dallas-Fort Worth, New York and Columbus, Ohio.
“Around the country what we’ve found is that there are cities where Uber is doing all these things we’re talking about,” Cockream said.
To become law, the proposed bill will have to win approval from the Hillsborough County legislative delegation when it meets Sept. 25. Crist, a former legislator, clearly had those local lawmakers in mind when he voted to stop ticketing drivers.
The bill, he said, would “level the playing field” between so-called transportation networking companies like Uber and Lyft and the county’s taxicab industry, which already has to follow those rules.
“I think this is a good faith effort put forward for the Legislature, the public and for all of you who drive for these companies that we are serious about being fair,” Crist said.
The idea to stop issuing citations came from transportation commission board member and county Commissioner Al Higginbotham. He pointed out that the commission is headed for a showdown with Uber in the Second District Court of Appeal on Oct. 14. Uber is appealing citations the commission issued to the company for aiding and abetting illegal behavior by its drivers. Continuing to ticket Uber drivers before the appeals court hears the case is “not healthy” for the county, Higginbotham said.
“In the interest of the health of the community, I move we discontinue until after the October meetings and reassess it in December,” Higginbotham said.
Board member Frank Reddick, a Tampa city councilman, opposed Higginbotham’s move because three commission members were absent. Reddick noted that the original vote to issue citations had been unanimous.
But Commissioner Ken Hagan sided with Higginbotham after checking with board attorney Cynthia Oster to make sure halting the citations would not affect ongoing litigation with Uber.
The PTC has issued about 160 citations since it started ticketing Uber and Lyft drivers last September, Cockream, the agency’s director, said. Each offense draws three citations, so about 53 drivers have been ticketed.
The twin votes by the Hillsborough transportation commission Wednesday joined a series of unrelated moves across Florida this week involving the fast-growing ride-sharing companies.
On Tuesday, the Sarasota City Commission gave up trying to regulate Uber — but also ended regulation of taxicab companies. As in Hillsborough, the Sarasota regulations dealt with background checks, vehicle inspections and insurance.
City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell said Sarasota was dealing with the same dilemma facing other Florida communities that want to keep the ride-sharing services while protecting the rights of traditional cab companies. After mulling the problem in long conversations with the county attorney, the Sarasota commissioners decided to let the market determine which modes of transportation are safest, most efficient and least costly.
“I think this will breed competition, and when we have competition, maybe the price will come down,” Atwell said. “Now, with this vote, we can level the playing field and challenge everybody to do better for our citizens.”
Atwell, like Crist, is hoping the state Legislature will pass general legislation that would make regulations for ride-sharing companies uniform across the state. Crist said this week that only the state can set minimum insurance requirements for Uber and Lyft to ensure insurance companies won’t drop drivers’ coverage for using their private vehicles in a commercial venture.
“What Tallahassee will do in the future, we don’t know,” Atwell said. “All over the country people are trying to look at how we’re going to regulate the cabs and Uber.”
Representatives of Tampa-area taxicab companies said they support much of the proposed bill’s language. However, any legislation that passes will have to compensate cab companies for the certificates, or medallions, that they had to purchase to operate, said Seth Mills, attorney for the Tampa Taxicab Coalition.
Mills said the state considers the certificates private property, just like land, that cannot be taken by the government without just compensation for the owner. Allowing the ride share companies to operate without any regulatory limits destroys the economic value of the certificates, which were being sold for $50,000 apiece at an auction two years ago, he said.
“My point is, if the government destroys the value of my clients’ private property they have to pay for it,” Mills said. The price tag for compensating cab companies in Hillsborough County would come to around $30 million, Mills said.