It took some doing, but Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission has managed to make taxicab service in Tampa even worse.
This week, the commission shut down an electric cart service that shuttled riders throughout downtown and the tourist-oriented channel district. Yet again, the agency charged with regulating the car-for-hire business has sided with the cab companies over the public. The commission needs to welcome the carts, regulate them and allow competition to flourish.
The open-air carts serve an emerging niche market. For the past year, four operators have been transporting riders on short hops throughout the downtown area — between the hotels, the St. Pete Times Forum and convention center, the cruise ship terminals, shops and bars at Channelside and the waterfront restaurants on Harbour Island. The carts are a smart and efficient way to get around, ease congestion downtown and add to the ambience of the city center.
Cab companies and their allies on the commission complain the carts are unregulated and unsafe. The first claim is easily resolved and the second is dubious. The carts should be regulated. They are by any reasonable definition "for-hire" vehicles, even if — in lieu of charging fares — the carts are funded by tips and through ads on the vehicles. The carts carry passengers on public roadways, and the government has an obligation to ensure they are clean, driven safely and in good working order.
But there was no reason for the commission, composed of elected officials throughout the county, to put the cart operators out of business. It is easy to put restrictions on how and where the carts operate. St. Petersburg, for example, has provisions that are expressly tailored to allow motorized, nongasoline vehicles to serve the downtown areas. The commission could restrict the carts to areas where the speed limit does not exceed 35 mph; require that they have seat belts, mirrors, turn lights and other customary safety equipment; and subject the vehicles to traffic and parking laws.
Cart operators are in a Catch-22: The commission does not have a category in which to license electric carts, yet it put the operators out of business because they did not obtain a license. That's senseless at any time, but especially in a down economy when the government should be helping to create jobs, not drive them away. The county needs to create a special class for electric cart operators. They do not operate long haul and the rates for licensing them should not be comparable to taxicab permits. Anyone wanting a taxi downtown can still call one. The carts are a response to a history of poor service stemming from the reluctance of cab drivers to make short hauls. They may want the business now that competitors have rolled out a new business model, but it's not the commission's job to pick favorites.