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Hillsborough getting closer to reaching deal with Uber, Lyft

The chairman of Hillsborough County’s Public Transportation Commission said he’s ready to make concessions that will allow ride-share companies Uber and Lyft to operate here much like they do in other U.S. metro areas.

Commission Chairman Victor Crist, who is also a county commissioner, said only a few safety issues have to be resolved before Uber and Lyft can operate in the county legally.

Up to now, the companies have refused to obtain county permits and operate under regulations meant for taxicabs. As a result, lawsuits have been filed and the county has ticketed Uber and Lyft drivers.

Crist, who has been involved in private negotiations with the companies, said he wants the impasse to end. To do so, he’s willing to agree to more flexibility on issues that have bogged down negotiations in the past, such as insurance and background checks.

“They’ll be responsible for policing themselves,” Crist said. “Basically, what we’re asking them to do is update their safety standards. It will allow them to do things the same way they’re doing it now.”

Like a recently struck deal in Palm Beach County, Hillsborough would not require Uber drivers to get background checks that include fingerprints, Crist said. Uber has been steadfast in its refusal to require fingerprinting and the company agreed to pay Palm Beach County a yearly permit fee to avoid doing so.

Under a vote taken last week by the Palm Beach County Commission, the fee would be reduced by half if Uber agreed to more extensive background checks that include fingerprinting.

“We’re saying if it’s good enough to do down in Palm Beach County, it’s good enough for us,” Crist said.

Hillsborough also would refrain from imposing any additional insurance regulations beyond what the state of Florida requires, said Kyle Cockream, executive director of the Public Transportation Commission.

“Whatever the state mandates, that’s what we’re going to enforce,” Cockream said.

The county will continue to require that vehicles driven by Uber and Lyft contractors undergo yearly mechanical inspections, Cockream said. But the drivers will be allowed to take the cars to their own professionally certified mechanics rather than working through the commission.

The negotiations have no commission members other than Crist. Cockream said the talks are at a “starting point” and not ready for the commission board as a whole.

Other board members contacted for this article said they had no problem with Crist, Cockream and commission attorneys negotiating privately with the ride-sharing companies.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to let Uber and Lyft operate here for two years. He’s welcome to do that,” said Temple Terrace Councilman David Pogorilich, a commission member. “I don’t know the details and to me, the devil is always in the details.”

Pogorilich said any agreement negotiated with Uber and Lyft must include adequate background checks, mechanical inspections and insurance “that protects the driver and the passenger while the vehicle is transporting people from point A to point B.”

“Up to now, Uber and Lyft have not demonstrated that they have the willingness or the means to do that,” Pogorilich said.

Public Transportation Commission member and county Commissioner Ken Hagan said he wants to see Crist succeed in negotiating a deal that would allow Uber and Lyft to operate in the open. Hagan said the regulatory safeguards the county has held out for are rules the companies have agreed to in other cities and metro areas.

“Our safety requests are not onerous,” Hagan said. “I’ve been confused why they would not be willing to offer our citizens the same degree of safety as folks that live in other communities.”

Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons said the company looks forward to talking about its safeguards.

“We would welcome the opportunity for a long-overdue dialogue to explain what Uber does to ensure residents of Hillsborough County have expanded access to safe, reliable and affordable transportation options,” Gibbons told The Tampa Tribune in an email. “We will continue to urge the PTC to cease intimidating Uber driver-partners in the community.”

Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said in an e-mail that the company has been working on an operating agreement with the county for several months but declined to discuss details.

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