America's free-market system is well and fine unless it hurts the bottom line of Hillsborough County's taxicab industry. That's the guiding ethos of the Public Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough. The Legislature should disband the agency and hand its narrow task to county government.
The chauffeur service Ride Command is trying to bring a service to Hillsborough that a similar company tried to and failed because of a PTC rule that artificially limits competition for the benefit of the cab industry. As the Tampa Bay Times' Susan Thurston reported last week, Ride Command lets customers use a mobile phone app to order a ride right away, or to put future rides out to bid to get the lowest price. But premium car services, which operate limousines and high-end SUVs and sedans, are prohibited from soliciting walkup customers on the street. The PTC requires they charge a $50 minimum fare, even for short distances, which serves only to protect the taxis.
The PTC says it is trying to separate everyday taxi service from the luxury providers, but that makes no sense. The private car services are subject to the same regulatory oversight as the taxis — the same inspections to ensure the vehicles are safe, the same background checks on the drivers. The difference is that the taxicabs benefit from a publicly imposed price support that gives the taxicabs a $50 jump on any business. The rule was suggested by the industry (no shock there). And PTC staff oppose the mobile phone service on the ridiculous notion that it disenfranchises poor people who need a hired ride but lack a smartphone.
The price-fixing policy is wrong, bad for consumers and business and counterproductive in terms of what customers are looking for today when it comes to value and convenience. It also undermines the great need to get the taxicab operators to improve their levels of service. If clients want to hire Ride Command, they should be able to under the terms the company offers, not beholden to the arbitrary rules the PTC imposes that have nothing to do with safety.
The commission was created by a special legislative act, and its stand-alone authority to regulate for-hire vehicles in the county is the only one of its kind in the state. But the PTC does nothing special; dissolving the agency and moving its handful of staff under county government would be easy and make the operation more efficient and accountable. The inspections would go on, but the move would bring greater public scrutiny to a pricing and regulatory scheme that fosters an uneven playing field. The bill to disband the commission should be a priority of Hillsborough's delegation for next year's legislative session.