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Plug pulled on free shuttle service by downtown Tampa's electric carts

TAMPA — Hillsborough County transportation officials Wednesday slammed the brakes on electric cart operators providing shuttle services downtown.

The Public Transportation Commission ruled that the companies run vehicles for hire, which means they need permits to stay in business.

The company owners have argued that they aren't subject to regulation by the commission because they don't charge fares. Their drivers accept only tips and the companies make money by selling ads on the carts.

The board made the decision after hearing from an attorney for Yellow Cab.

"After a year and half of operating a profitable business, I have to close my doors because of the fact that more than anything the taxi cab industry wanted us out of there," said Todd Persico, owner of Hop Tampa, which provided trips around Harbour Island, downtown and the Channel District. "They were seeing us as competition."

Persico didn't attend Wednesday's meeting, saying he didn't want to try to fight the cab company's attorney.

"There wasn't anything I could say. The board had to make a decision," he said.

He said he is likely to move his business to downtown St. Petersburg.

Commission members Kevin White, Joseph Caetano, Rose Ferlita and Dan Raulerson supported the ruling that subjects the companies to regulation by the commission.

Ferlita said her decision was made in part out of fairness to the cab companies.

"Given the fact that they transport passengers, I thought they should have to go through permitting just like we ask the cab people," she said.

But she also cited safety reasons, saying she worries someone will get hurt in the small, open-air vehicles.

"They do transport people and right now nobody's regulating them," she said. "It has to be under somebody's purview."

Commissioners Mark Knapp and John Dingfelder voted against the ruling.

"Now it means they have to have permits as a taxi cab. And guess what? There are no permits available," Dingfelder said. "There's only a limited number of permits available, and they're always taken."

Typically, the commission issues fewer than a dozen permits for new cabs each year, and competition for them is stiff.

Four companies have been operating the electric carts downtown, with a total of fewer than 20 vehicles.

Senior assistant county attorney Orlando Perez, who represents the commission, said a workshop will be scheduled to discuss how the cabs and carts can coexist.

Options 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.

Plug pulled on free shuttle service by downtown Tampa's electric carts 08/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 12:34pm]

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