Hillsborough taxis cry foul over new ride-sharing services

TAMPA — Despite repeated warnings from the county's taxi-regulating agency, two ride-sharing services continue to operate in Hillsborough County with no regard for its rules.

California-based companies Lyft and Uber, which use smartphone applications to connect passengers with drivers who use their own vehicles, launched services here in the last two weeks without proper certification.

So far, eight warnings have been issued to drivers, said Kyle Cockream, incoming executive director of Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission.

For limo and taxi drivers, that's not enough. Several company and organization representatives spoke Wednesday at the PTC's monthly meeting, demanding more action.

"If someone is operating illegally, we want something done," Dave Shaw, president of the West Florida Livery Association, said afterward. "We pay for regulation so we expect the commission to regulate."

The PTC has the option of imposing fines ranging from $30 to $500 as well as the power to charge drivers with misdemeanors and impound their cars. But it prefers to warn them first.

"We are trying not to be heavy handed but be informative and help them see what the problem is," said the PTC's chairman, Hills­borough County Commissioner Victor Crist.

Complicating the situation, Crist said, is that Uber and Lyft are not the ones to be fined.

"These are local citizens who are just trying to make ends meet," Crist said. "They are being misled, not informed and are putting themselves at risk of losing everything they have and they don't even know it."

The PTC plans to soon launch educational campaigns for drivers and riders, informing them of the risks both face.

Because drivers are using their own vehicles and personal insurance policies for commercial uses, they may be liable for any injuries resulting from accidents in their cars, Cockream said. Passengers may not realize they are not covered, either, he said.

On its website, Lyft advertises a $1,000,000 excess liability insurance policy covering passengers and third parties.

And so far, the Tampa launch has been a success, said Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen.

"The Tampa community has embraced Lyft as an affordable, convenient and fun new way of getting around," Thelen said.

Requests for comment from Uber — which operates UberX, the ride-sharing service that is available here — were not returned.

The companies are testing the PTC's regulations at a time the Legislature is considering limiting the agency's potency. Two similar bills that would take away the PTC's ability to impose minimum wait times or fares on app-based commercially licensed driver services, such as town cars and limousines, are currently moving through the Legislature.

The Lyft and UberX services are also available in Pinellas County, where there is little oversight of car-for-hire services.

"Basically, anyone who can afford to buy a magnetic sign and slap it on their car can go into business," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and part of a group working to create local regulations for taxi agencies.

The group plans to submit recommendations to the Pinellas County Commission.

"We're not trying to overregulate, but there are some basic assumptions when you get into a vehicle for hire, like proper insurance and posted fare rates," Clifford said. "We have none of that in Pinellas."

The city of St. Petersburg and the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport do have some policies, he said, but the group hopes to implement countywide rules.

Lyft initially launched only in Hillsborough but expanded to include much of Pinellas when it realized passengers often requested service between the two, Thelen said. Both UberX and Lyft are offering free rides for a limited time.

Xavier Taveras of Tampa became a driver for UberX on Saturday and by Tuesday had given rides to nearly 50 passengers.

"It's mostly been out-of-towners," he said, "who were excited to hear Uber was finally here."

Tavares said he wasn't aware the service didn't comply with local regulations.

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com.

New director

Appointed in February and officially on the job this Monday, the Public Transportation Commission's new executive director, Kyle Cockream, is a 28-year employee of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where he served most recently as captain of the special investigations team. He replaces Cesar Padilla, who retired last year after it was revealed he was moonlighting at another job while on the clock.

Hillsborough taxis cry foul over new ride-sharing services 04/16/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 11:27pm]

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