A panel of local leaders, including politicians and the heads of bus and expressway authorities, gushed Wednesday about the positive aspects of having ride-share companies operate in Tampa Bay — despite fervent pushback from the Hillsborough County agency that regulates for-hire vehicles.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and state Sen. Jeff Brandes said it is not a matter of whether companies such as Uber and Lyft will be able to operate here with support from local governments, but when.
"What we really want to do is give the people the opportunity to do what they want to do," Sharpe said. "Government kind of needs to, in a sense, get out the way and let the technology work."
The panel, meeting Wednesday in St. Petersburg, was part of the Tampa Bay Transportation Forum put on by the Tampa Bay Partnership. It included conversations about the economic impact of transportation, how transit affects different generations, and the connectivity between different parts of the region.
Sharpe and Brandes joined Hillsborough Area Regional Transit interim chief executive officer Katharine Eagan, Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority executive director Joe Waggoner and Lyft director of business development Bakari Brock to discuss modern transit technology.
While other subjects such as driverless cars were covered, conversation centered on ride-sharing. Companies such as Uber and Lyft allow users to connect with nearby drivers using a smartphone app. The drivers use their own vehicles, and riders pay with credit cards through the app.
Hillsborough regulators say the service is illegal and the companies don't meet insurance and background check requirements.
But the consensus Wednesday was that ride-sharing services provide a vital service for the community and are part of the future transportation framework for Tampa Bay.
"We need to offer what most business leaders and tourists want, which are these types of options," said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who faces re-election this November. "We'll work through all these other issues, both the insurance issues and the background check issues. …I'm 100 percent confident that we can find a reasonable solution to those issues."
Kyle Cockream, executive director of the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission, said no one from the regulatory agency was invited to participate in the panels. He said he was disappointed to hear that there was no discussion about the legal battles between the ride-shares operating here and the PTC, whose investigators have issued thousands of dollars in tickets to the drivers.
"I think there's still some hurdles to get over, and I don't think it should be taken so lightly," Cockream said. "I also think elected officials should uphold the laws of this country, regardless of how they feel about them. If laws need to be changed, there's a civil and democratic process to that."
Brandes said after the panel that Hillsborough's resistance to Uber and Lyft could damage the brand of Tampa Bay both around the state and the country.
"We want to be seen as leaders in innovation, and right now we're seen as a roadblock," Brandes said. "When the stories start coming out about how government is hampering and putting up red tape for these types of innovative products, I'm sure business leaders around the country think about that and see that.
"Business travelers expect to have these products available," he added. "They shouldn't have to look over their shoulder to see if there's a PTC officer coming at them."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.