Saturday, June 23, 2018
Transportation

Push to expand in Tampa Bay puts ride-share services at odds with regulators

TAMPA — Riders call them convenient. Regulators call them risky.

Almost immediately after pushing into the Tampa Bay market as part of an aggressive expansion, ride-sharing programs Uber and Lyft find themselves defending their operations and trying to distinguish their services from taxis.

It's a ride with a friend, Lyft says. It's technology and not transportation, Uber says.

It's a matter of public safety — or lack thereof, contends Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission, which regulates for-hire vehicles such as taxis and limousines.

According to executive director Kyle Cockream, Uber and Lyft don't carry the proper insurance to protect passengers, don't conduct adequate background checks on drivers and don't have the necessary certification to operate.

Uber and Lyft argue that the laws are antiquated and don't apply to their business models. The companies, Cockream counters, are lawbreakers.

"I've never had a group of organized criminals tell us or the federal government, 'Your laws don't fit in our business model, so we're going to continue to break the law,' " he said. "They will have to make some changes. We're not just going to roll over on this."

•••

Uber launched its smartphone app in 2010, and Lyft followed shortly after. The two are now operating in more than 60 U.S. cities and drawing big-time investors. Uber, which operates several services, including the ride-share model UberX, spans 38 countries and is valued at more than $18 billion.

Both companies allow customers to request a ride through smartphone apps from drivers who don't have the same costly licenses and permits required of taxi drivers. They say their services are not only more affordable, but altogether different from those of a taxi service.

"Typically, we hear that sitting in the front seat and talking and conversing with the driver makes it feel like you're taking a ride with a friend," Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said.

Drivers, who set their own hours and use their own cars, take home 80 percent of profits, while the companies take 20 percent.

Because Uber doesn't directly employ drivers — but rather partners with them — spokesman Taylor Bennett said Uber is not a transportation company. Its product, he said, is the mobile platform.

But both outfits are widely under fire for operating outside regulations. At least 14 states have issued warnings about the risks of using ride-shares. Taxi and livery firms in Connecticut and Texas are suing the companies. More than 30,000 taxi drivers protested Wednesday in Europe. In Miami-Dade County, officials have impounded three Lyft cars.

•••

Here in Tampa, the complications thicken as the Public Transportation Commission — a regulatory agency of three inspectors and a board of elected officials — tries figure out how the newcomers fit into the existing climate.

Taxi and limousine owners complain that these new competitors are playing by different rules and facing relatively little backlash. Tensions rise the longer these two companies operate in the county while skirting regulation.

Among the areas of contention: insurance. Cockream said drivers may be liable for injuries resulting from accidents in their cars, and passengers may not realize they, too, might not be covered.

Both ride-share outfits maintain that their safety standards and insurance policies are adequate. Both advertise a $1 million excess liability insurance policy for passengers and third parties.

The problem, Uber spokesman Bennett said, is that regulations such as those in place in Hillsborough and elsewhere were developed before the alternatives were ever imagined.

"It's our job to help modernize those regulations and ensure ride sharing and other mobile platforms are able to function properly and work with that regulatory framework," Bennett said.

Cockream doesn't buy that.

After a month of issuing warnings and trying to educate drivers, inspectors for the transportation agency are hitting drivers with fines that can total $800.

So far, inspectors here have fined 12 drivers and issued 44 tickets. If Lyft and Uber continue to operate, regulators are not afraid to take things further, Cockream said.

"By law, we could actually arrest these people," he said. "We'd like that it doesn't escalate to that point, but the Public Transportation Commission … should not turn a blind eye to people that have been warned repeatedly and continue to operate. So I'm not going to take arrests off the table."

It's not difficult to find the perpetrators, Cockream said. Many Lyft drivers place notable pink mustaches on their vehicles, and some Uber drivers have a blue symbol on their windshields.

Plus, inspectors can open either app and see nearby drivers. They've even had people call in with the locations of drivers, asking the agency to arrest or fine them.

But Bennett said Uber has no intention of closing up shop here.

"It was disappointing, after a number of productive conversations we've had with the PTC, for them to use scare tactics like that," he said. "We support our driver partners fully, so we're going to cover whatever costs, financial or legal, that are associated with these misguided citations."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] and (813) 661-2443.

Comments
SunPass charges will soon be showing up again on customer accounts — without late fees

SunPass charges will soon be showing up again on customer accounts — without late fees

It has been more than two weeks since SunPass customers have been able to access their accounts after the Florida toll service took down its website for system maintenance.While SunPass continues to accumulate toll charges since the maintenance perio...
Published: 06/22/18
Petition language reveals details of Hillsborough sales tax transportation initiative

Petition language reveals details of Hillsborough sales tax transportation initiative

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections on Friday approved petition language that will let a new group of transportation advocates begin gathering the 48,000 signatures they need to get a sales tax initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot.All ...
Published: 06/15/18
Carlton: A trolley instead of a boondoggle? About time, Tampa

Carlton: A trolley instead of a boondoggle? About time, Tampa

You could rightly call the vintage streetcars that trundle between downtown Tampa and Ybor City big, beautiful boondoggles.Charming?Yes. An integral part of this city’s unique history?Absolutely.And in their current incarnation, overpriced, inefficie...
Published: 06/15/18
Federal judge halts work on Suncoast 2 toll road

Federal judge halts work on Suncoast 2 toll road

U.S. District Judge James S. Moody, Jr. granted a temporary restraining order on Thursday to halt the work that has already begun on the extension of the Suncoast Parkway — aka the controversial "Suncoast 2."The toll road now ends at U.S. 98 at the n...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18
Hillsborough group pushing new referendum on raising sales tax for transportation

Hillsborough group pushing new referendum on raising sales tax for transportation

TAMPA — In 2010, Hillsborough voters soundly rejected a 1 cent sales tax hike backed by their elected leaders to raise billions of dollars for roads, bus expansion and light rail. In 2016, county commissioners helped develop a new transportation plan...
Published: 06/14/18
SunPass apologizes to customers who couldn’t access accounts after website maintenance

SunPass apologizes to customers who couldn’t access accounts after website maintenance

Users were unable to access their SunPass accounts on Monday after the release of a system redesign that took the system’s web site, app and hotlines down for a week.From June 5-11, the SunPass website, hotlines and mobile app were taken down for sys...
Published: 06/14/18
Elon Musk to build 125 mph underground transit line serving Chicago O’Hare

Elon Musk to build 125 mph underground transit line serving Chicago O’Hare

Elon Musk has taken on a task perhaps more challenging than launching rockets into space: getting passengers from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to the Loop in 12 minutes, roughly three to four times as fast as the current taxi journey.The plan for the "Ch...
Published: 06/14/18
This trooper pulled over a driver - then realized the man had delivered him nearly 27 years ago

This trooper pulled over a driver - then realized the man had delivered him nearly 27 years ago

New Jersey state trooper Michael Patterson was on patrol recently when he pulled over a white BMW for a routine traffic stop.He asked the driver for his license and registration, and the two started making small talk. It turned out that the driver, M...
Published: 06/13/18
Fares eliminated on downtown Tampa trolley following FDOT grant

Fares eliminated on downtown Tampa trolley following FDOT grant

TAMPA — Fares on the TECO Line Streetcar in downtown Tampa will be eliminated for three years following a grant funded by the Florida Department of Transportation.The grant provide $2.67 million to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, allowing it to t...
Published: 06/12/18
Tampa road work forces office workers to wait up to an hour to get out of their parking garage every day

Tampa road work forces office workers to wait up to an hour to get out of their parking garage every day

TAMPA — At 42 floors tall, the largest office building on Florida’s Gulf Coast offers some spectacular views.But good luck getting out of it.Since the start of a $5.7 million street resurfacing project late last year on Kennedy Boulevard and Jackson ...
Published: 06/11/18
Updated: 06/12/18