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  1. Transportation

Despite legal setback, Hillsborough regulators will keep ticketing Uber drivers

TAMPA — The standoff between rideshare company Uber and local regulators isn't going away any time soon.

The Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission voted Wednesday to continue ticketing Uber drivers — despite a circuit judge's recent refusal to shut down the company.

The PTC has already conducted dozens of sting operations to ensnare the company and its more than 2,000 drivers operating around the Tampa Bay area.

The PTC tried but failed to get an injunction from a Hillsborough circuit judge to halt Uber's operations. The commission plans to appeal that ruling, but in the meantime, the PTC said there's nothing in the judge's order that prevents it from continuing to issue tickets.

Both Uber and its competitor Lyft are also seeking to overturn those tickets in the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The PTC, which governs for-hire vehicles, contends that the rideshare companies are in violation of local laws requiring certain permitting, licensing and insurance.

About 25 Uber drivers gathered outside Wednesday's PTC meeting to protest the commission and its actions, calling the continued ticketing one more example of the agency's "scare tactics."

"Their main motive is to get rid of us so we can no longer compete with the cab monopolies that keep them in business," said Tsegai Tadesse, an Uber driver and former cabdriver of Tampa.

"People here like Uber. They like the convenience. But the PTC refuses to recognize that."

• • •

Not much has changed in the 16 months since Uber started operating in Tampa Bay.

Tickets have been issued, legislation filed and lawsuits appealed, but no compromise has been reached.

The $40 billion San Francisco company continues to connect drivers with riders throughout the county, touting more than 1 million rides in the first year, and regulators continue to demand the company follows their rules or get out of town.

Uber argues that it is a technology company — not a transportation company — and refuses to comply with local laws mandating that vehicles for hire maintain certain permits, licenses and insurance. Yet the circuit judge who denied the PTC's request for an injunction was perplexed that the county has yet to create a new category for transportation network companies that would allow it to regulate rideshares like Uber.

Other cities have had more success. In New York City and Columbus, Ohio, drivers must submit to FBI Level II background checks, complete with fingerprinting. Portland created a 120-day pilot program for the company, scheduled to end this month, in which drivers have to pass city-approved background checks and obtain a business license.

More than 20 states have passed legislation pertaining to ridesharing, but the Florida Legislature failed to take similar action during its last session.

After a year-and-a-half standstill in Tampa Bay, it's still unclear how things will shake out for Uber in Hillsborough. Drivers have not faced similar backlash in Pinellas and Pasco, which lack local regulating agencies like the PTC.

• • •

Both taxi companies and rideshares need to make changes in how they operate in Hillsborough County, said PTC Chairman and County Commissioner Victor Crist.

He berated Uber representatives Wednesday for not being present at workshops designed to create rules for the company to operate legally.

"You're doing it in other markets," he said. "The fact that you're refusing to do it here but you're doing it there is unacceptable."

Crist also called out the cab companies. He said they cannot use their monopoly as an excuse for providing poor service and cited a taxi ride he took last week.

"They were late, the cab smelled like puke," Crist said, "and the driver had no personality."

Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons said the company is disappointed in the PTC's decision to continue issuing tickets, calling it a form of continued harassment and intimidation.

"Rather than heed the judge's direction in his ruling and work with ridesharing companies on a constructive path forward, the PTC doubled down on its efforts to force Uber out of Hillsborough County," Gibbons wrote in an email.

The board asked executive director Kyle Cockream to come up with parameters for regulating a new category of for-hire vehicles and present them at next month's meeting.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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