TAMPA — The little electric cart zips up to the curb of the Channelside entertainment complex.
Three clubgoers run up, and ask the driver: "Can you take us to the Embassy Suites?"
"Next stop, Embassy Suites," he replies as they climb in.
A breezy few blocks later, the three step out and hand over no fare, just a $5 tip. Downtown boosters say the free rides are a welcome addition, helping turn the neighborhood into a place to live, work and play without needing a car for short trips.
"It improves the experience of downtown," said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership.
But cabdrivers have grown irritated, saying the "neighborhood electric vehicles" are taking away business.
"The only big thing I have is the unfairness of how they operate. If an Americab is sitting first out at the Marriott and all of a sudden one of these cars whips in front of him to take that fare, it isn't right," said Lou Minardi, owner of Yellow Cab. "My drivers get a little bit frustrated."
Some cabbies don't like short trips, so the vehicles — operated by companies called Hop Tampa, Green-Go, Mulligan Shuttle and Joy Ride — are no problem in a confined area.
But Minardi said the cars are venturing outside downtown to South Howard Avenue and as far away as International Plaza.
"They're starting to stretch out all over the place," he said.
The cabdrivers have asked Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission, which oversees cabs, limousines, towing companies and some ambulances, to step in and regulate the cars.
They say safety is a concern. The transportation commission regulates vehicle inspections and insurance, and driver background checks.
But cabdrivers also have talked about controlling the competition through permitting.
"I think the cabdrivers want them eliminated, not regulated," said Kevin White, a Hillsborough County commissioner who also serves as chairman of the transportation commission.
The problem: Hillsborough's commission regulates only vehicles for hire. The electric shuttles operate on tips only.
Todd Persico, owner of Hop Tampa, said when he started his business about a year ago, he approached the Public Transportation Commission about safety regulations and permits. He hoped to charge riders $3 for a short lift — a business model used by O-Carts in downtown Orlando since 2007.
But Persico said he was told it would be hard to get permits because they're tightly controlled.
"That's when I decided to operate it free of charge, and that kept me out of the regulations," he said. "Would I rather be able to charge $3 for a short run? Yes."
Persico said on a busy weekend night, he gets as many as 400 calls. He makes his money by selling ads on the cars to such business such as the Hyatt Regency downtown, Pizza Pazza on Harbour Island, and MacDinton's on South Howard Avenue.
Andrew Bonnemort, owner of Cafe du Frain on Harbour Island, is a fan of alternative transportation. He advertises with river taxis, which make regular stops at the restaurant's dock, and Hop Tampa, whose cars rotate by his restaurant's front door.
No taxis do that, he said.
And the customers like them.
"It's free, you can put six people in them, and the service is better," he said. "If they say they're going to be here in 20 minutes, then they are here in 20 minutes."
Persico is about to expand his business to downtown St. Petersburg this week. There, he'll charge a small fee.
St. Petersburg recently rewrote its rules to accommodate the neighborhood electric vehicles so they can be monitored for safety.
"It is absolutely perfect. We're part of the whole public transportation system," Persico said.
It's not as easy in Hillsborough County, which regulates for-hire vehicles differently than anyone in the state. Its Public Transportation Commission is the only one mandated by state statutes.
Changing the rules to cover the neighborhood electric vehicles requires a change by state lawmakers.
Transportation commission lobbyist Vic DiMaio said the matter may end up going to the Legislature during the next session. For now, though, he's trying to work out a compromise between the electric vehicle companies and the cab industry.
"We're trying to make everybody happy," he said.
The issue is scheduled for discussion at the transportation commission meeting Wednesday.
White points out that even without regulation, the vehicles are subject to some rules. They're supposed to run on streets with speed limits of 30 mph or less. If they go somewhere else, police can cite them.
But the commission's staff is looking to see if it can jump in and regulate further without a change at the state level.
At a recent meeting, cabdrivers suggested that the vehicles do fall under the jurisdiction of the transportation commission because the cars aren't really free because drivers press people for tips.
That caught the attention of Rose Ferlita, a Hillsborough County commissioner and transportation commission member, who suggested having "mystery passengers" ride the cars and see if that's true.
Burdick said she isn't sure what all the fuss is about. She said electric vehicles are a fast, easy and fun way to get around downtown Tampa, and as she understands it, the cars take people to cab stands or trolley stops if they want to go beyond downtown or the South Howard area.
"This is an underlying support system for the cab industry," she said. "We think it's an amenity."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.