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Free shuttles still running in Tampa, but with new look and different owner

When carts offering free rides were shut down by a transportation commission, a taxi company announced plans to start its own version. Gasan Mustefa shows a hybrid used for the free rides.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

When carts offering free rides were shut down by a transportation commission, a taxi company announced plans to start its own version. Gasan Mustefa shows a hybrid used for the free rides.

TAMPA — The electric vehicles that for 18 months gave free rides around downtown Tampa are gone, but a new service has popped up in their place.

The owner?

Lou Minardi, whose attorney this month persuaded the Hills­borough County Public Transportation Commission board to pull the plug on his competitors.

Minardi, owner of the Red Top and Yellow Cab companies, launched his business about two months ago, after receiving permission from the transportation commission to convert two hybrid cars to what he calls "Green Fleet" vehicles.

"It's a good concept," Minardi said of the idea he borrowed from his former competition.

For now, at least, Minardi enjoys a monopoly on the free shuttle market serving downtown, Ybor City, the Channel District and South Howard Avenue.

On Aug. 12, the transportation commission board shut down the electric cart companies.

For months, taxi drivers and cab company owners had been complaining to the board that the carts were cutting into their business. They pleaded with board members to regulate the services of four companies with 14 vehicles on the road.

The electric cart owners argued that they couldn't be regulated by the commission because they didn't charge fares. Their drivers accepted only tips, and the companies made money by selling ads on the carts.

Orlando Perez, an assistant county attorney who advises the transportation commission, confirmed to the board in March that the advertising did not constitute compensation, according to meeting minutes.

Enter Seth Mills, an attorney for Minardi.

In July and August, he spoke at length at commission meetings, ultimately persuading board members to side with the cab companies.

Commissioners ruled that advertisements are indeed compensation, which put the electric vehicles under their jurisdiction.

Transportation commission members Kevin White, Joseph Caetano, Rose Ferlita and Dan Raulerson supported the ruling.

Commissioners Mark Knapp and John Dingfelder voted against it.

The decision means the electric carts need taxi permits to operate, though they're hard to come by. The electric vehicles also need waivers to qualify for the permits because they don't have features, such as air conditioning, that are required.

"We're getting pushed out so the industry that's already there can do it," said Tim Ireland, owner of Green Go, which had been operating a shuttle service. "It seems there's collusion between the two, between the cab companies and the PTC. I say that because of what's going on. They don't listen to their own attorney. They listened to the attorney for the taxi cabs."

Minardi said he had no intention of eliminating competition. He merely wanted the commission to clarify the meaning of "compensation." The shuttering of Green Go and three other businesses — Hop Tampa, Joyride and Mulligans — was just a consequence of the ruling, he said.

"I thought they were a great little service," he said.

So great, in fact, that the day after the commission's ruling, Minardi dropped off fliers promoting his free Green Fleet hybrid cars at Cafe DuFrain. The Harbour Island restaurant had been advertising with Hop Tampa.

Andrew Bonnemort, owner of Cafe DuFrain, said he doesn't plan to refer his customers to Minardi's Green Fleet. He remains committed to the small electric cart companies, he said.

"They're the pioneers that came in here. They made it work," Bonnemort said. "I want to see how this all pans out."

A workshop is set for 9 a.m. Tuesday at County Center so taxi companies, owners of the electric vehicles and the transportation commission staff can discuss how the carts and cabs can coexist.

"We're trying to resolve the problem without putting anybody out of business," said Mario Tamargo, interim chief inspector for the commission. "That's what this workshop is about."

Options likely to be discussed include creating a special permitting system for the electric vehicles and limiting them to certain geographic areas.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Free shuttles still running in Tampa, but with new look and different owner 08/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 2:10pm]
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