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Despite opposition from taxis, Hillsborough reaches tentative deal to legalize Uber, Lyft

PTC chairman Victor Crist had wanted FBI background checks, but acquiesced. 
PTC chairman Victor Crist had wanted FBI background checks, but acquiesced. 
Published May 20, 2016

TAMPA — After a bumpy two-year ride together, the Public Transportation Commission and old foes Uber and Lyft have reached a tentative agreement that could finally make ridesharing legal in Hillsborough County.

The agency is also fending off a challenge from taxi companies that oppose the deal. The industry is trying to bar PTC chairman Victor Crist from being able to vote on the agreement, which must be ratified by the agency's board at Wednesday's meeting.

Details are still being worked out, but if the deal is approved, it would mark the end of a sometimes bitter dispute that has raged since 2014 when Uber and Lyft drivers began operating in Hillsborough. PTC inspectors have been ticketing ridesharing drivers and even went to court last year in a failed bid to stop the firms from operating here.

But during negotiations this week, the parties appeared close to a breakthrough.

"This is huge progress," PTC executive director Kyle Cockream said Friday. "Yesterday, we were at two proposals and both companies weren't sure they wanted to move forward. Now, we have a solid document we want to draft and put to the commission."

The agreement would mean a minimal level of regulation for rideshare companies from the agency that regulates and licenses for-hire vehicles in the county. But rideshare firms would not be bound by many other regulations that the PTC mandates for taxicabs and rental limousines such as special licenses, and permits.

Rideshare companies would be required to conduct annual vehicle inspections and to provide additional insurance coverage for drivers whose private insurance does not cover them in the event of an accident while working.

But background checks of drivers will be left to rideshare companies to conduct and will not be as thorough as the FBI fingerprint background check required of taxi drivers. Crist had wanted the FBI background check, which became one of the biggest sticking points.

"Commissioner Crist has acquiesced on that and is allowing them to do their own Internet background check," Cockream said.

A spokesman for Uber declined to comment. A representative for Lyft could not be reached for comment.

Crist and rideshare firms were in talks for several weeks, meeting as often as two days a week in the past month. There are still details to be worked out, such as how the agency will enforce it, especially in verifying the background checks.

Uber and Lyft agreed to a background check that uses a software tool that only goes back seven years, said Cockream, but it's a tool that can be ineffective at finding arrest records in seven or eight states.

"There's a lot of things it will not reveal that a fingerprint background check will reveal," he said.

Any settlement with Uber and Lyft is likely to further antagonize taxicab firms who say rideshare firms should abide by the same regulations they follow.

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This week, they filed a motion with the commission asking the agency's board to disqualify its chairman, Crist, from voting on the ridesharing issue altogether because he has "demonstrably shown and stated his bias and prejudice."

Crist, who is also a Hillsborough County commissioner, declined to comment Friday. He has previously denied the accusations, saying taxicab firms are targeting him because he is opening the door to competition.

The taxi industry wanted its motion heard Wednesday before the PTC board votes on the ridesharing agreement. But Friday, PTC legal counsel Cindy Oster sent the agency's board members a legal opinion saying the taxi industry's motion is "legally insufficient." The opinion also says the PTC does not have legal authority to act on that request.

The taxi companies' motion for disqualification was not included on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting. Crist controls what goes on that agenda.

"I think it's telling that (Crist) doesn't even want to have the issue discussed," said attorney Seth Mills, who filed the motion on behalf of the taxi companies. "It's wrong, and he can't avoid facing the issue of whether there is a lawful basis for him to be disqualified."

Mills added that it would be illegal for the commission to create new regulations specifically for rideshare firms since it is required to enforce the state law that created the special agency. The next step for the taxi firms may be to take the PTC to court.

David Bean, who has worked for 10 years as a taxicab driver for Yellow Taxi of Tampa, said the PTC has let down drivers and taxicab companies who obey the laws, and is caving in to Uber and Lyft.

The 55-year-old drives about 100 hours a week to make a living.

"It's not that any of the cab drivers object to the competition," he said. "All we want is a level playing field; it's nowhere near being a level playing field."

Follow @codonnell_Times.