TAMPA — The Public Transportation Commission is finally poised to legalize ridesharing, but it might drive Uber and Lyft out of Hillsborough County in the process.
Over objections from the two rideshare giants, PTC board members voted Wednesday to move ahead with regulations that mandate fingerprint background checks for all rideshare drivers. The same requirement led Uber and Lyft to abandon the lucrative Austin, Texas, market in May.
The move comes after PTC commissioners declared "dead" their settlement talks with Uber and Lyft. Instead, commissioners set an ambitious target of voting on new rules by their regular meeting Sept. 14.
The PTC regulates for-hire vehicles like taxicabs and limousines in Hillsborough County. The new rules would formally bring rideshare companies under PTC purview by creating a special category known as transportation network companies, or TNCs.
This could help deflect criticism of the agency from state lawmakers, particularly state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who accused the PTC of stifling innovation and called for its abolition.
Taxicab companies that want to employ rideshare drivers and Drive Society, a new Tampa rideshare firm, also have complained about the two years it has taken for the agency to resolve its impasse with Uber and Lyft.
"We'll focus on the TNC industry and make sure this commission is known as one where innovation is embraced," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, a PTC board member.
Still, Uber and Lyft can challenge the new rules. If either files an objection, a second public hearing would be required, likely in October, before new rules can be adopted.
After that, the companies could take their fight to an administrative law judge through the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
Uber is already challenging the PTC's right to regulate rideshare firms before Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal. The company is asking the court to overturn fines the agency levied on Uber drivers for operating without a permit and insurance.
In a letter sent to the PTC this week, Uber officials argued that mandatory fingerprint-based background checks would prove a disadvantage to minorities, who are arrested at a disproportionately higher rate.
The check also deters people from applying, wrote Aaron Brand, senior regulatory counsel at Uber.
"The result is that the TNCs cannot provide the same access to reliable and affordable transportation services that the public has come to expect because there are not enough drivers available to meet the demand for these services," the letter says.
Lyft attorney Steven Anderson told PTC commissioners that 33 states and 66 cities with more people than Tampa have enacted legislation to recognize transportation network companies. None of them requires fingerprint background checks, Anderson said.
"Ridesharing is happening all around the world; everyone is coming to the conclusion that fingerprinting is not required," he said.
Uber and Lyft began operating in Hillsborough in 2014 and have established a strong foothold in the market. In talks, the companies have agreed to regular vehicle inspections and lower-level background checks but not the FBI fingerprint check the PTC mandates for taxicab drivers.
The failure to follow PTC requirements has angered taxicab and limousine-rental firms, which say they are operating at a disadvantage. At Wednesday's meeting, they urged the PTC to move ahead with the new regulations.
"When Uber and Lyft rolled out of Austin, the void was filled by those TNCs who want to comply, who want to be properly regulated and properly insured with fingerprint check," said Seth Mills, an attorney representing taxicab firms. "It's been a better service, a safer service."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.