TAMPA — Hillsborough transportation officials on Wednesday put an end to downtown's free electric vehicle shuttle services, at least for now.
The Public Transportation Commission, made up of City Council members and county commissioners, determined that the vehicles need permits and insurance that covers passengers to operate.
The board made the decision after being briefed on a court ruling that the commission has jurisdiction over all vehicles for hire. The electric shuttle operators have argued they are not subject to regulation by the commission because they don't charge fares. They earn their money through tips and advertisements. But a judge overruled that notion, saying that tips and advertisements constitute compensation and thus the vehicles are "for hire."
"It's obviously under our watch," said commission member Rose Ferlita after the briefing. "We want them to be insured. We want them to be safe. We want them to be accountable."
Owners of the companies Green Go and Mulligan Shuttle say they have insurance, but they have no permits, which they have to apply for with the commission. That typically takes months.
Mike Mulligan, owner of Mulligan Shuttle, said he will consult with his attorney to see how he should proceed.
Green Go is still in business, said owner Chris Ireland.
"They're saying we can't transport passengers," he said. "But we're going to continue doing our deliveries and sightseeing tours, which they can't regulate. We have an occupational license for that."
The 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, called Green Fleet, operated solely on tips and advertisements. Then the company asked a court to decide whether the commission should regulate the vehicles.
The judge's ruling means the Green Fleet, which uses the cab company's existing permits, can still carry passengers.
Mulligan Shuttle and Green Go cannot.
"We need to look at this and decide how they fit into the scope of our purview and come up with something that is fair to them but not unfair to the taxicabs and the limo drivers," Ferlita said.
It's unclear, though, under which rules the carts should receive permits. The state legislation that created the commission says the board regulates "public vehicles," specifically defined as taxicabs, limousines, wreckers, vans and ambulances.
Commission chairman Kevin White suggested coming up with a separate classification for the electric vehicles.
The shuttle owners say the controversy is an attempt by cab companies to stifle competition.
"You're protecting the special interests here. And the special interest is the taxicab industry," Ireland told commissioners Wednesday.
But commission members say their concern is safety.
"God forbid there is an accident," Ferlita said. "The first finger pointing is going to come back to the PTC."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.