TAMPA — The controversy surrounding the free electric cart shuttles downtown continues.
A judge ruled last week that because cart operators make money from tips and advertisements, the vehicles can be regulated by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.
But the owner of one electric cart service said the case is just another attempt by the cab companies to force him out of business.
"My main concern is we do not want to be in the same grouping as taxicabs because that's not what we are," said Tim Ireland, owner of the Green Go free electric vehicle shuttle service. "If you don't have a meter, if you're not charging people, you're not a taxicab."
The latest ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by a cab company. The Public Transportation Commission last year opted not to regulate the electric carts, despite pressure from cab companies to take on that responsibility.
Cab operators said the electric vehicles are unsafe and cut into their business. It's unfair, they said, that cab companies need insurance and hard-to-get permits for each vehicle, while the electric vehicle operators do not.
The controversy prompted Red Top Cab to launch its own courtesy cab service, operated solely on tips and advertisements. Then the company took the Public Transportation Commission to court to determine whether its vehicles should be regulated because they are "for hire."
Lou Minardi, owner of Red Top, thinks the court ruling means his courtesy cabs should be regulated, along with the other electric vehicles.
"Now everybody's on an equal playing field," Minardi said. "That's the way it should have been from the beginning."
The state legislation that created the Public Transportation Commission, however, doesn't specify that the board controls vehicles for hire.
It says only that it controls "public vehicles" — defined as taxicabs, limousines, wreckers, vans, and ambulances.
The Green Go vehicles don't fit the legal definition of taxicabs, because they don't have meters. The closest definition they fit is limousines, but the commission has denied limo permits for vehicles that weren't considered sufficiently luxurious.
If the Green Go vehicles are regulated the same as taxis or limousines, Ireland would have to pay $500 to launch his business and get permits for each of his four vehicles. The commission issues only a handful of limo and taxi permits each year, and the competition for them is fierce.
Ireland doesn't mind paying the fee and applying for permits.
"Since day one, over two years ago, we've been trying to get them to give us permits. But they've only wanted to do it the same as the taxis, which is so unfair because it's not the same business," he said.
The highly publicized debate last year has forced some shuttle operators out of business, and Ireland said his company lost customers because people thought they were no longer operating.
"We're surviving by delivering meals and doing tours," Ireland said.
He believes that if the ruling means the commission can regulate his shuttles, it should also apply to hotel shuttles.
The commission, which is made up of seven elected officials from Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and Hillsborough County, is scheduled to discuss the matter at its meeting June 9.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.