TAMPA — Hillsborough transportation officials will hold an emergency meeting today to determine the fate of electric cart companies whose cheap rides around downtown made them popular with riders, businesses and boosters.
The cart companies have been out of business since Aug. 12, when the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission voted to begin regulating them after a cab company attorney convinced them they had sufficient authority.
But do they?
Some say "No."
"The public transportation commission was created by the Legislature and the Legislature gave it limited power to do only certain things," says John Byrne, an attorney hired by the company Green Go, which operated four carts — called neighborhood electric vehicles — between Hyde Park, Harbour Island, downtown and Ybor City and to Tampa Stadium.
Because of its status in state law — which makes it unique in Florida — only state lawmakers can give the commission permission to regulate a new type of vehicle, Byrne argues.
"The PTC can't make up its own authority," he says.
County and state attorneys have made similar arguments.
Last month, Orlando Perez, the senior assistant county attorney that advises the PTC board, warned them against adopting rules not clearly outlined in state law.
"The safer course would be to seek legislative change to the special act," Perez said, according to meeting transcripts.
In March, the agency that monitors the PTC's compliance with state administrative procedures warned the board that it "does not have the authority to enlarge" or "modify" powers named in state law.
And in a 2007 opinion, Attorney General Bill McCollum said if there is any question about the extent of the PTC's power, PTC officials should assume that power doesn't exist.
Historically, it has been state lawmakers that added different types of vehicles to the PTC regulatory list.
In 1982 they added vans, handicabs and limousines. In 1987 and 1988 it was ambulances and government wreckers. Sightseeing vehicles and buses are explicitly exempt.
But after months of hearing from cab company owners who argued that the electric carts weren't safe and were cutting into their business, the PTC voted Aug. 12 in favor of what cab company attorney Seth Mills presented as "Option A."
Under that option, Mills argued, the PTC could regulate the carts by calling them vehicles-for-hire because they receive compensation through tips and advertisements. That move would require the carts to get permits to operate, which they don't have.
Among those who rejected Mills' argument was City Council member John Dingfelder.
He said Perez, the board's attorney, had twice examined the issue and told them they couldn't regulate the carts.
"I was just befuddled as to why they would be listening to an outside attorney lobbying on behalf of the cab industry instead of listening to our own attorneys on the same exact subject," Dingfelder said.
Dingfelder declined to speculate on why other board members voted as they did. But service on the PTC is a cash cow for candidates.
The most recent campaign finance reports show people from cab companies and other regulated transportation businesses have donated at least $2,000 to Dingfelder's 2010 County Commission run; $6,000 to Kevin White's 2010 commission race; $3,500 to Ken Hagan's 2010 commission race; and $1,260 to Joseph Caetano's 2011 City Council run.
Last week, the PTC staff held a workshop to hammer out specific emergency rules for regulating the electric carts. Board members Rose Ferlita and Caetano participated, with Ferlita dominating much of the conversation.
Ferlita said she wanted to get the carts back on the streets as soon as possible. She noted that the tourist industry, and the Tampa Downtown Partnership, an economic development agency, like the carts. Her biggest concern, she said, is safety.
She pushed for today's special meeting so the board could vote on emergency rules permitted by state law to address the "health, safety and welfare of the traveling public" and put the carts back in operation.
At the workshop, Ferlita objected to a fee increase approved by the board that would bump up the cost of starting a new transportation business in Hillsborough County from $500 to $5,000.
"That rate is too high. It's ridiculous," said Ferlita, who said it sends a message that newcomers aren't welcome. She wants fellow board members today to rescind that decision.
The board approved the fee in October 2008 with no discussion after the PTC's interim executive director, Cesar Padilla, told them it was necessary to cover agency expenses.
The fee was set at a meeting with owners of limousine and taxi companies.
"Everybody that had a limousine was coming in and applying and getting a permit. And the limo companies were trying to stop it," said Mario Tamargo, the PTC's interim chief inspector and spokesman.
When asked why limo owners wanted to stop the businesses, Tamargo said: "They were concerned with people coming that weren't really serious about the business."
Todd Persico, owner of an electric shuttle service called Hop Tampa, said he plans to expand his business to St. Petersburg if he can't keep operating in Hillsborough.
He received approval from the St. Petersburg City Council this year to start shuttling passengers there, and he received a permit for his company in March.
Law enforcement officials in St. Petersburg will make sure his company follows city rules, such as having permits, insurance, the proper drivers licenses, and staying only roads with a posted speed of less than 35 m.p.h., which is required by state law.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.