It is about time Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission cracked down on the unlicensed car services that are ferrying paying passengers at their peril. But the PTC needs to move forward with an eye toward bringing these services into the market. And this is an opportunity for Pinellas County to join hands in restructuring how the taxicab industry serves the entire Tampa Bay area.
The ride-sharing programs Uber and Lyft have operated for months in Hillsborough without the permits from the PTC, which licenses all for-hire vehicles in the county. These services allow customers to request rides using a smartphone app, making it fast and easy to order a ride at prices more flexible than metered rates.
Some of the PTC's rules are nanny-state nonsense that quash competition in the market. But the regulations play a vital role in ensuring that taxis are safe and that drivers have clean criminal records and adequate insurance to protect their passengers and the traveling public. However convenient these new services may be (local cab companies, after all, have phone apps, too) they must comply with local licensing laws. Otherwise the public can be at risk and the ride-share operations are playing unfair in the very market they pretend to open up.
The PTC should show a zero tolerance and fine the ride-share drivers the maximum penalties. And the county should take legal action to force these companies to shut down until they obtain the required permits. Travelers should not have to worry who's behind the wheel, or whether they would be insured in case of an accident. And taxpayers should not face the prospect that hospital charity care will be on the hook for covering any uninsured accident victims.
The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and Tampa police, though, should not accommodate the PTC's request to enforce these regulations through the criminal process. The police have more important duties than pulling over private carriers on a fishing expedition. What, anyway, would constitute probable cause to stop these drivers? The county needs to focus on legally sound ways to induce the industry to become legitimate.
The ride-share companies can make an important contribution to the market by adding capacity and bringing service levels where they need to be, by driving down rates and by reducing congestion and getting more vehicles off the road. And this impasse offers the chance for the region to address a larger problem with its dated framework for taxicab service.
While St. Petersburg has some taxicab regulations, the rules are spotty and poorly enforced, and they contrast to the unregulated environment throughout most of Pinellas. The two counties need a regulatory framework that spurs competition and protects public safety while ensuring universal service from the Pinellas beaches to Tampa International Airport.
As the downtowns and tourism grow on both sides of the bay, and as the counties prepare to modernize their transit systems, the role of taxis and other for-hire vehicles needs to factor into the planning. But the rules have to be the same for everyone, and the region needs to protect the public as it opens competition.