TAMPA — A bill to abolish the agency that regulates vehicles for hire in Hillsborough County was substantially altered Tuesday in a way that will make it difficult to achieve its goal any time soon.
State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, was seeking to eliminate the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, the subject of recurring controversies. She proposed turning over the regulation of cabs, limousines, ambulances and tow trucks to the Hillsborough County Commission.
But the bill faced opposition from county officials, who are concerned about being handed a new responsibility, as well as some legislators. So Storms twice amended the bill in an effort to salvage it during the Hillsborough County legislative delegation's annual meeting Tuesday.
The bill now would allow the elimination of the PTC if the county agrees to take over its duties and its three cities — Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City — agree to that. The County Commission and Tampa City Council have already rejected that idea, though commissioners are scheduled to take up the matter again today.
The unanimous vote among legislators present — state Rep. Darryl Rouson left the meeting early — at least allows the bill to advance for further consideration.
"Is a quarter of a loaf better than no loaf at all?" Storms asked rhetorically after the debate.
Dozens of cab and limo drivers turned out for the meeting, most of them to express support for Storms' bill and protest what they described as unfair treatment by the PTC. They described an agency that favors monopolistic cab companies, exorbitant permit and lease fees that require them to work long hours for little pay, and enforcement of rules that borders on harassment.
"After I pay the fees I have little left for me," said James A. Durassaint, a driver with Yellow Cab cab for nine years.
Many of the speakers said they work for Yellow Cab or United Cab Co., which hold a vast chunk of the permits to operate cabs in Hillsborough County under the PTC's capped system. They said both companies charge steep rates to drive under the companies' banners but the drivers have little choice because they can't secure their own permits.
"I want my own business," said Wael Nahhas, who said he has driven for both companies.
On top of that, they said the PTC's enforcement officers regularly cite them arbitrarily for rule violations. The result: Cabbies invariably have to work unreasonably long hours to make money.
Representatives of permitted cab companies, as well as limousine and tow truck services, urged legislators to keep the system as it is, saying it is working to ensure customers' safety.
Storms said that's no surprise because those folks already have permits and don't want additional competition that comes from a more free-market system. Despite the setback for her bill, she said her effort has at least drawn attention to what she considers a deeply flawed regulatory agency.
"To hear the people come out today and talk, I think it was very compelling," she said.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have expanded the PTC's regulation of limousines and other cars for hire in Hillsborough was withdrawn Tuesday by its primary sponsors, Sen. Jim Norman and Rep. Shawn Harrison.
The proposal, which also would have allowed permit holders for cab service to transfer their permits to others, had come under fire from some operators of vehicles for hire. Many of them had rallied around Storms' plan to abolish the PTC.
Harrison said Storms' bill, provided it passes the legislature, allows the county and its other local governments to spend the next year trying to come up with a solution that works. If nothing emerges, the Legislature can take up the future of the PTC again next year.
"Let the locals take a look at what needs they have," Harrison said. "Then we can bring it back. We'll have several fresh eyes looking at it now."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.