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Legal or not, Uber has a new partner: the Lightning

TAMPA — Navigating jam-packed streets around Amalie Arena after a Tampa Bay Lightning game can be almost as daunting as trying to squeeze a puck past goalie Ben Bishop.

So on the eve of its new season, the team on Wednesday announced a new partnership with rideshare giant Uber. Two lanes on Channelside Drive outside the arena will be designated for Uber drivers to pick up fans after home games.

Just one problem: Ridesharing in Hillsborough County is still regarded as illegal by the Public Transportation Commission, which has fought a two-year battle in and out of court with Uber and its main competitor, Lyft.

The two firms have refused to comply with regulations that govern for-hire vehicles like taxicabs. PTC officers frequently hand out $700 fines to their drivers for operating without insurance and permits.

That raises the question of whether the Lightning is undermining the PTC by encouraging Uber drivers to flout the law. The team's deal with Uber also pre-empts a critical PTC vote on Nov. 9 that could affect the future of ridesharing in Hillsborough.

Central to that vote is whether the PTC will compromise on fingerprint background checks, which both Uber and Lyft have refused to require for their drivers.

Lightning officials would not specifically address questions about the legality of ridesharing in Hillsborough or the safety of fans. The partnership is a paid deal, as the team has with Amalie Oil Co., the Tampa Bay Times, Dex Imaging and other firms, said spokesman Bill Wickett.

"Uber has assured us that they are not doing anything wrong; our goal here is simply to serve our fans and respond to their needs," Wickett said.

PTC leaders said they were not consulted about the partnership. Some expressed concern about the Lightning agreeing to it ahead of next month's vote. Board members likely face a choice between approving a temporary operating agreement for Uber and Lyft or strict new regulations for all ridesharing firms that mandate fingerprinting of drivers.

Those on the board who favor fingerprinting say it is needed to protect the safety of the traveling public. Uber has warned that it may stop operating in Hillsborough if there is no compromise on that requirement.

"My mindset would be you wait to see the outcome of that vote prior to making an agreement with a company that might not be here," said Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, who serves on the PTC board.

Still, the backing of Uber by one of Tampa Bay major sports franchises will put more pressure on the PTC to resolve the long-running dispute.

Since they began operating in Hillsborough in 2014, the two firms have argued that the PTC should not have jurisdiction over them. They have asked the 2nd District Court of Appeal to overturn tickets issued to their drivers. A ruling is expected in the next few months.

"PTC commissioners and members have a temporary operating agreement on the table they can sign and approve at the next meeting, said Uber spokesman Javi Correoso. "We're going to continue to operate until this issue is decided by the courts or decided by the PTC."

It's unclear if the PTC will conduct sting operations to catch Uber drivers outside Lightning games. Executive director Kyle Cockream said he was not contacted about the deal and said it would be up to the agency's governing board to decide if they want to stop ticketing drivers.

The program will start today with the Lightning season opener against the Detroit Red Wings. The team marked the event Wednesday with a ceremonial first Uber hail by ThunderBug, the team's mascot.

The car that picked up the furry cheerleader was driven by team legend Dave Andreychuk.

Traffic operations outside Amalie are handled by the Tampa Police Department, which has never been involved in enforcing PTC regulations. The Uber-dedicated lanes are between Florida Avenue and Morgan Street and will be in use only at the end of Lightning games.

The nearest taxicab stand is a little farther on Florida Avenue.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who is recent weeks has blasted the PTC as a dinosaur, said the Lightning's partnership with Uber isn't encouraging anyone to break the law.

"As you can see there are more and more people who are voting with their choices, and their choice is Uber and Lyft and some of these others," he said. "I want to see more companies like Uber coming in and disrupting more traditional technologies. That's a good thing for our community."

Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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