Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Bill would let voters ax Hillsborough transportation agency

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TAMPA — The push to eliminate the Hillsborough County agency that regulates for-hire vehicle companies — such as taxicab, limousine and ambulance operators — is on.

Two state legislators have submitted a bill that would allow Hillsborough voters to abolish the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

"It think that the world of transportation is rapidly changing," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who submitted the bill with Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa. "This entity is archaic in its rules. It's proven it's not going to change with the marketplace."

The bill has several hurdles. It must win support from members of the Hillsborough legislative delegation, which meets to consider local bills Dec. 2, before going to the full House and Senate.

If passed and signed into law, it would place a question on a ballot in 2014 for the public to decide whether it wants the PTC to continue operations. If voters say no, both legislators say some part of the PTC's job — making sure livery drivers have no criminal records and their vehicles are functioning, perhaps — would be turned over to the county government, like what happens in other places in the state.

The PTC was created by the Legislature in 1976. Board members reached Wednesday said they don't think a bill allowing for it to be undone is necessary.

"I think the PTC is trying to make corrections on some past mistakes," said Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, who serves on the board. "I think we're doing a good job of moving forward in a progressive way. I think we should be given an opportunity to do so."

County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, also a PTC member, noted that the agency is run with money charged to livery operators for permits and inspections. He expressed concern about turning its responsibilities over to county government and the cost that could come from that.

"I'm somewhat surprised my Republican friends in the Legislature are in favor of expanding local government," said Hagan, a Republican.

PTC board Chairman Victor Crist, a county commissioner and former legislator, has been seeking to reform the agency, which is widely seen as protecting existing monopolistic companies that dominate the industries it regulates.

The agency has been a rich source of controversy through the years. Its most recent director resigned following Tampa Bay Times reports that he was moonlighting while payroll records showed he was on the agency clock or out sick. And a prior chairman, former County Commissioner Kevin White, is in federal prison for bribery connected to his duties at the agency.

More recently, companies such as Uber, developer of a third-party application that allows cab or limo customers to book a vehicle with their phone or computer, have complained that agency rules prohibit them from entering the market. Its experience, and backlash it created from young professionals, helped inspire the legislation.

Grant said he is aware that efforts are under way to change the way the PTC functions and to make it more open to innovation and competition.

He said he will be watching how it goes, and said if he sees progress the legislation could be withdrawn. At the same time, he warned that the bill is no shot across the bow and that he plans to push it vigorously in the meantime. "I don't think Jeff or I will be convinced by hearing of coming or promised changes," Grant said. "Convince me that it's a new day in Hillsborough County."

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