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  1. Transportation

Legislation filed, sentiment builds for abolishing Hillsborough transportation commission

TAMPA — The clock could soon be ticking for the embattled Public Transportation Commission.

A bill filed Friday by state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, would abolish the agency that regulates for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough and would repeal the 1976 special act that made Hillsborough the only Florida county to establish such an agency.

If approved in the upcoming legislative session, the act would take effect Oct. 1. Regulation would transfer to Hillsborough County government.

The House bill already has support in the Florida Senate with the backing of Dana Young, R-Tampa. Young is one of a number of local Republican lawmakers who for several years have accused the agency of siding with the taxicab industry by working to block ridesharing firms from operating in Hillsborough.

"Uber and Lyft was one of the symptoms of a regulatory agency that was no longer functioning as it should, but it certainly was not the only symptom," Young said. "The public has lost all faith and confidence in the agency."

The threat of abolition comes at the end of a tumultuous year for the PTC. Its board in November did finally reach an agreement to regulate Uber and Lyft in Hillsborough. But the issue left the board deeply divided, with Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick resigning in protest. The same month also marked the resignation of longtime board chairman Victor Crist, who said the agency is too bureaucratic and slow to adjust to changes in the market.

Executive director Kyle Cockream also announced in November he would leave at the end of this year. He faces a possible Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into his and the agency's relationship with the taxicab industry. That review was requested by Young after a Tampa Bay Times report revealed Cockream was aware the agency was using taxicab and limousine staffers during sting operations against Uber and Lyft drivers.

The PTC was set up by a special state law in 1976 to regulate taxis, limos, tow trucks and some ambulance services. It is funded through fees paid by the industries it regulates.

The agency conducts vehicle inspections and background checks on more than 1,000 drivers each year. It also ensures ambulances are adequately equipped and their drivers have the proper level of training.

In other Florida counties, most of these tasks are handled by city or county government.

Young said responsibility would automatically delegate to Hillsborough County if the bill is approved. It would be up to the county to decide how it wants to regulate.

"They can mirror the PTC regulations, which I seriously doubt they would, or they can take fresh look at regulation of this sector of the economy and figure out what makes sense for this marketplace," she said.

New PTC board chairman Al Higginbotham said he believes there still is a role for the agency.

"If you are unlawfully towed or have a bad experience with a for-hire transportation service in Pinellas, Manatee or other area county, you have no recourse except to complain to the company providing the service," Higginbotham wrote in a recent column for the Times. "But in Hillsborough County, the PTC — created through a special act by the Legislature — serves as a third-party agency to help consumers."

Since it only applies to Hillsborough, Grant's bill is classified as a local bill, meaning it doesn't require matching legislation be filed in the Florida Senate. Instead, it will be among a batch of local House bills that will go before the Senate. Young said she does not anticipate any resistance from other lawmakers.

The upcoming legislative session may also be the year Florida finally establishes statewide regulations for ridesharing, which already have been enacted in 34 other states.

Previous attempts were blocked by former Senate President Andy Gardiner, who's a friend of Paul Mears III, president of Orlando taxi and limo operator Mears Transportation. Mears gave the Republican Party of Florida $150,000 during the years Gardiner was in leadership.

New Senate President Joe Negron has publicly supported creating statewide standards for the fledgling industry.

"Everyone genuinely believes this will be the year we adopt the statewide regulatory framework for ridesharing," Young said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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