1. News

Public Transportation Commission gets criticism at Emerge Tampa Bay session

TAMPA — When 100 or so young professionals came together for last week's Emerge Tampa Bay town hall meeting, most questions were about mass transit.

Then downtown resident Vinny Tafuro took the microphone.

How, he asked, can we "help generate the political will" to get rid of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission?

During the Republican National Convention, he said, the PTC embarrassed Tampa by forcing Uber, a private-driver service that lets patrons use a smartphone app to call for a ride, charge at least $50 for a lift from downtown to Ybor City — triple its lowest charge in New York City. The reason: The PTC treated San Francisco-based Uber like a limousine service, not a less-expensive taxicab company.

Outraged, fans of Uber took to Twitter to denounce the sky-high fares, and Tampa's creative class winced.

"It really didn't look good," Tafuro said, "so how can we remedy that?"

"We can eliminate the PTC, for starters," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, one of the Emerge Tampa Bay panelists.

The PTC was created by a special act of the Legislature to regulate vehicles-for-hire in Hillsborough County — taxicabs, limousines, vans, basic life support ambulances and tow trucks.

Buckhorn wasn't aware of Uber's experience in Tampa, but he said the PTC "is an archaic, antiquated body that only Hillsborough County has."

"If it went away, it wouldn't bother me at all," he said, suggesting that either city or county government "could effectively manage it. There hasn't been the willpower over the years to take that on because historically that whole cab regulation has been fraught with risk — and a few indictments, a couple of jail terms."

In 2010, then-state Sen. Ronda Storms pushed for the elimination of the PTC, saying the agency had been "mired in scandal and controversy." She compared it to Jabba the Hut, with "tentacles everywhere." But nothing came of her effort.

And last year, former County Commissioner Kevin White was sentenced to three years in federal prison after being convicted of taking $6,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent who said he wanted White's influence as chairman of the PTC.

Now, Buckhorn said, if the county's legislative delegation got behind the idea of eliminating the agency, "I think it could happen, and it should happen."

Another Emerge Tampa Bay panelist, state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, said what happened with Uber "really bothered me."

"It was certainly something that I felt was embarrassing for our city," he said. "I think it sent as many chilling messages about innovation and our failure to embrace innovation as a region as it did (about) draconian regulations."

Grant said he shared "the mayor's sentiment and would love to work with some of you all as we go into next session, maybe see if I can get it done."

The following day, two members of the PTC said it's a bad idea.

If the mayor or anyone else has issues with the PTC, then it ought to approach the agency with ideas to improve it, said Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, who sits on the board.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who chairs the PTC's board, said people who criticize the agency don't know anything about it.

"The bottom line is this: Hillsborough County has the highest customer service, the highest consumer protection, the highest industry standards of any county in this state," Crist said.

"When you are in need of a taxi, a limo, a tow truck or another vehicle regulated by the PTC, you are going to get far better quality, service and security than you're going to get anywhere else," he said. "The reason is because we have the PTC, and we demand the highest standards of any county."

Part of that includes screening prospective cab drivers to keep out those with criminal histories and bad driving records. If you get in a cab in Hillsborough, Crist said, you can be assured that the driver is not a sex offender.

"I can't say the same for Miami, Jacksonville or Orlando," he said.

Calls to get rid of the PTC tend to focus on past problems, Crist said.

Other local governments, including the County Commission and the city of Tampa, have had problems of their own, he said, and no one suggests eliminating them.

"The PTC of today is different than the PTC of yesterday,'' Crist said.

Since becoming chairman, Crist said he has demanded new bylaws, new operating procedures and a new set of policies for the board.

The result will be an agency that's more responsive, transparent and accountable than ever, he said.

Finally, Crist said, "there are reasons why we have hoops to jump through for companies that come in from the outside."

"Gypsy companies" that come in for big events like the Republican National Convention "basically steal business from companies that are here trying to survive," Crist said.

If local officials don't protect local companies from being squeezed during the big events, then they won't be able to survive during the slow times.

"What kind of quality of service are we going to have," he said, "when they're not around?"

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.