Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

PTC's ride should be coming to an end

Artist Charles Greacen offers his skewed view of the Tampa area as seen from his studio. Go to towntiles.com to reach him.

The Public Transportation Commission's basic self-deluding argument for staying alive can be found in nine words that Ronald Reagan, bless him, identified as the most terrifying in the English language: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.

By regulating taxis, limos, tow-truck operators, ambulances and (sort of) rideshare providers like Uber and Lyft, the PTC has argued that it performs an invaluable public service.

People kind of went along with that because, really, most of us don't think about taxis unless we're at the airport and the courtesy bus is late.

But then, the acrimony over trying to regulate the unregulatable Uber and Lyft revealed an emperor agency in the buff. Not pretty. Now a bill has been filed in the Legislature by state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, that could mercifully put an end to an outfit for which fewer and fewer people see a need.

It has a good chance of passing since House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes is a PTC opponent. He usually gets what he wants.

The problem with the PTC has always been its cozy relationship with the entities it regulates. Most of its funding comes from the fees it charges those companies. As we saw in the drawn-out feud with Uber and Lyft though, there seemed to be a payoff. The PTC tended to protect established companies by making life difficult for upstart newcomers.

Even when soon-to-be-former Chairman Kyle Cockream used cab drivers (regulated by the PTC) in a sting operation against Uber drivers, the snarky justification was "public safety."

It sounded like more stifling competition to me. Apparently, it did to a lot of people, too — some of whom are members of the PTC board. Hillsborough County Commissioner and former PTC Chairman Victor Crist is one of those. Last month, he pleaded with fellow commissioners to be released from the obligation of serving on the PTC, having lost years off his life while overseeing the Uber-Lyft debacle.

Crist got his wish, but it wasn't easy. When Chairman Stacy White asked for a volunteer to take Crist's place, normally gabby fellow commissioners became silent stone sphinxes until Les Miller took one for the team.

"This hurts, Mr. Chairman," Miller told the board. "I'm going to be a nut, lose my mind, jump off a cliff, and take the PTC."

That's one brave man. A toast to you sir!

Fortunately for Miller and the rest of us, that may be a shorter assignment than he feared. Recent proposals to end the PTC have died on the vine in the Legislature, but there seems to be an increased sense that this agency needs to go.

It's not that taxis and all the rest — you too, Uber — don't need oversight. The PTC overdid it though. By controlling the rates cab companies had to charge, for instance, it stifled competition all good politicians say they love to embrace.

Uber and Lyft didn't want to play along with those rates. Well, they didn't want to play along with a lot of things. Here's the thing the PTC missed, though — or didn't care about. People just seem to like those ride services better, and that public pressure finally forced the issue.

The more the PTC battled the newcomers, the more people wondered why that agency was needed. When people like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn started loudly saying the PTC needed to go, you got the sense something finally was going to happen.

The city and county can divvy up some of the oversight responsibilities among existing agencies. While they're at it, they might want to adopt a strategy for the next time a company like Uber comes along.

Or, as Reagan might have put it, sometimes the best way for the government to help is not to help at all.

Contact Joe Henderson at [email protected]

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