TAMPA — Both sides in the battle between local regulators and ride-share company Uber are taking their fight to the public, despite claims of an imminent compromise.
Uber sent an email blast to its riders last Tuesday urging them to contact Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission Chairman Victor Crist telling him they "want access to safe, affordable, and reliable rides like Uber." Crist's office said it received more than 750 emails by the end of the day.
That salvo came one day after the PTC put up the first in a series of billboards warning people to "be cautious of illegal transportation providers." The billboard along Interstate 4 near 50th Street cost $4,000 — paid for by revenue from regulatory fees and fines — and will be up for 30 days, executive director Kyle Cockream said.
Although the billboard doesn't mention Uber by name, Cockream confirmed that the message targets the ride-share company, in addition to similar provider Lyft and individual drivers who operate illegally in the area.
Uber allows smartphone users to request a ride from nearby drivers, who use their own vehicles and are paid by credit card directly through the app. The PTC argues that the insurance and background checks provided by Uber don't meet the standards the agency requires of for-hire vehicles in the county.
"This is part of our community outreach for public safety," Cockream said. "We still feel that a large part of our community is not aware of the insurance concerns, the faulty background checks, no vehicle checks and some of these unsafe conditions that exist."
These public campaigns started a week after the PTC made an attempt to compromise with the ride-share companies by suggesting they charge customers at least $30 and make them order a ride at least a half-hour in advance.
Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett called the suggested compromise disappointing.
"Frankly, it's anticompetitive and it's anticonsumer," Bennett said. "Really what it does is restrict the competition, protect an industry that does nothing for consumers, and make it harder for folks to get an affordable ride and move around the city easily."
Nearly a thousand people sent emails to Crist's office arguing against the minimum fare and mandatory wait time.
"Putting a $30 floor on Uber rides takes away from consumer choice and a very clean and safe alternative," business developer Sean Struble wrote. "I've had nothing but great experiences with Uber."
Others used the opportunity to rail against cab companies.
"In the past, I have used cabs that have been unsafe, poor drivers, purposely taking the long way to get places to drive up prices and also have had them refuse to drive me places that were 'too close' because they thought it wouldn't get them enough money," Kim Bailey wrote. "Uber is always friendly, quick and reliable. Let the demand of the consumer choose the ride, not the government."
While many crafted elaborate arguments in favor of the ride-share company, which has operated here since April, others used boilerplate language. Some emails came from out of state.
"People sharing their experiences regardless of where they are is interesting and important to know," Crist said. "But it's not an actual fair and scientific market test because Uber is having their friends, family and employees contacting us, so of course they're all going to be positive experiences."
Bennett said the company hopes to reach an agreement with regulators within a matter of months that would allow it to operate legally in the area.
Crist said he is reluctant to believe Uber's assertion that an agreement is imminent.
"I would like to believe that, but I will believe it when they sign on the dotted line," Crist said. "Because I've heard it before, and every time we hand them the pen, it's something else that we've got to change."
Crist and Cockream said the PTC will continue to ticket drivers from Uber and Lyft. To date, the regulatory agency has issued tickets to drivers on nearly 50 instances. Cockream added that there are 22 cases being reviewed for possible criminal charges.
But Bennett said Uber has no intention of pulling its drivers off the streets and will cover any costs associated with the citations, including legal fees.
"To suggest that ride-share companies are either unsafe or illegal or not a great choice is misleading," Bennett said. "It's unfortunate an attempt like that would discourage residents or visitors to the city to use a safe way and reliable way and an easier way to get around the city."
Crist, who called the technology "innovative, forward-thinking and ingenious," said he is supportive of Uber providing consumers with another transportation option, but it must find a way to do so within the regulatory framework that governs for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough.
"And at this point, I'm going to come right out and say it: I don't think they want to operate legally," Crist said. "By operating illegally, they don't have to meet our high standards. They can cut the prices, steal the fares and make more money."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.