Hillsborough County needs a better way to regulate the taxicab industry, and a solution finally is on the table. Two Tampa Bay area legislators have committed to push a bill in the 2014 Legislature that would clear the way to abolish Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees taxis, ambulances and other for-hire vehicles. Disbanding this stand-alone agency and handing its job to county government would be good for taxpayers and consumers. The Hillsborough legislative delegation should make this bill a priority.
The anticipated legislation by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, would place a question on the 2014 ballot allowing Hillsborough voters to decide whether the PTC should continue to operate. The agency is the only one of its kind in the state, created by the Legislature in 1976 to regulate the for-hire vehicle industry. Staff members conduct criminal background checks on drivers and ensure that vehicles are safe and in good condition. If voters disband the PTC, its job would be handed over to county government, as is the case in other jurisdictions across the state.
Brandes is right that the PTC is archaic and anti-consumer. Its outdated rules have artificially limited competition, kept new on-command taxi services from the market and served to protect the big cab companies. The PTC also has a history of going rogue; its most recent director resigned after Tampa Bay Times reports that he was moonlighting while payroll records showed he was on the agency clock or out sick. And a prior chairman, former County Commissioner Kevin White, is in federal prison for bribery connected to his duties at the agency.
Local elected officials who serve on the PTC board say they are reforming the agency to make it more responsive and in tune with the marketplace. But previous boards have said the same thing. And what agency needs a seven-member board overseeing a 10-member staff? Folding the investigators under the county would be more efficient, and it would bring a new level of public scrutiny to the operation. Moving to the county could cut overhead and staffing costs, savings that could be passed on to the industry and consumers in the form of lower permitting fees.
The public has a legitimate interest in ensuring that taxis are safe and reliable. But there's no need for a special agency to do the job. And there's no sense in continuing to wait for the PTC to clean up its act. The legislative delegation should support this proposed legislation and work hard next session to pass it.