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  1. Florida Politics

Look what Uber did: Longtime Hillsborough County agency faces extinction

TALLAHASSEE — A Hillsborough County board that regulates taxis and waged a years-long war against Uber is on track to be abolished by the state Legislature.

Decried by opponents as unnecessary and out-of-date, the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission has been at the center of controversy over ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft. It approved a ban on their operation within county boundaries and tried to regulate them like taxicab companies.

The House voted unanimously on Friday to end the PTC with no debate. Senators plan to pass the bill (HB 647), by Tampa Republican Rep. Jamie Grant, next week. Every member of the Hillsborough County delegation supports it.

"Nobody would ever say, 'Follow the Hillsborough model,' " said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, an outspoken opponent of the commission who represented part of Tampa until redistricting last year. "The PTC is an abomination. Getting rid of the PTC and passing ridesharing might be the best thing to happen this session."

Founded in 1987, the PTC licenses taxicabs, limousines, tow trucks and other for-hire vehicles. They set rules on insurance, set taxi rates and decide which companies can work in the county.

That regulation, says Brandes, is archaic. He and other backers of ridesharing companies have said the PTC was stifling innovation by trying to control Uber and Lyft as for-hire vehicles.

Brandes and other lawmakers argue the commission has become even less relevant since the Legislature passed statewide regulations on ridesharing companies. Under that measure (HB 221), cities and counties cannot regulate ridesharing. Gov. Rick Scott announced he plans to sign the bill into law.

"This has been a problem for many years," said Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa. "With the new bill that now regulates Uber and Lyft and other ridesharing companies, I think (the PTC) would be obsolete."

Made up of city and county officials from Hillsborough, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, it is the only such board in the state of Florida. Throughout the rest of the state, taxis, limousines and tow trucks are regulated by county commissions or offices in county government.

For the last two years, the PTC has been fighting off extinction. Last year, the objection of some Tampa lawmakers stymied the effort.

But this year, even PTC leaders have come out in support of its abolition.

Chairman Al Higginbotham said at a public meeting in December that the commission wouldn't oppose what even then seemed a guaranteed death sentence.

"It's an opportunity to remake and redirect the oversight of the industry," he said.

Yet some local officials worry the state has made the wrong move by taking over control of ridesharing companies, even if they support getting rid of the PTC.

Hillsborough County commissioner and former PTC chairman Victor Crist told the Times/Herald that the state's legislation overseeing Uber didn't go far enough to protect consumers with higher insurance requirements, vehicle inspections and tougher background checks.

"I think the Legislature sold out the public ridesharing consumers by putting them needlessly at risk by not requiring the basic safeguards that we have here in Hillsborough County," Crist, a former Republican state senator said.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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