Uber and Lyft get official go-ahead in Hillsborough

A split Hillsborough PTC agrees to a temporary deal granting Uber and Lyft drivers legal status.
Stephanie Smith, senior public policy manager for Uber Florida, celebrates after the Hillsborough County PTC voted to end its battle with Uber and Lyft by passing a temporary operating agreement. JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times
Stephanie Smith, senior public policy manager for Uber Florida, celebrates after the Hillsborough County PTC voted to end its battle with Uber and Lyft by passing a temporary operating agreement.JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published November 9 2016
Updated November 10 2016

TAMPA — Uber and Lyft are finally street legal in Hillsborough County.

The Public Transportation Commission on Wednesday voted 4-3 to adopt a temporary agreement for the two ridesharing companies to operate legally in Hillsborough through 2017. The deal ends a long legal battle with the companies, which sued the PTC after it fined their drivers for working without insurance and permits.

The agreement means Uber and Lyft drivers will not be required to undergo the FBI fingerprint-based background check that the PTC wanted. Instead, they will be subject to "enhanced" background checks that go back only seven years.

But it wasn't a total victory for Uber and Lyft. With a nod to the taxicab industry, board members approved emergency rules that allow cab companies to offer ridesharing services. Those rules also open the door for other rideshare companies to operate in the county, though they would have to fingerprint their drivers.

The breakthrough came at some cost. The three-hour meeting ended with Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick resigning from the board. And PTC executive director Kyle Cockream said he will now step down at the end of the year. He had planned to stay until March.

PTC chairman Victor Crist negotiated the deal with Uber and Lyft. Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco, Plant City Commissioner Nate Kilton and county Commissioner Ken Hagan also supported the deal.

"This agreement would provide the PTC with what we don't have now: safety standards for the riding public that are close to where we have tried to go with this board and the teeth to enforce them," Crist said.

PTC vice chairman David Pogorilich, County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Reddick voted against the deal.

Pogorilich said the agency should not compromise on fingerprint background checks and said he worries that blame will be aimed at the agency if riders come to harm from drivers with criminal records.

"It baffles me that the drivers and the passengers wouldn't want the most safety that we can offer," he said.

After the meeting, Reddick said he resigned because the state law that set up the agency mandates fingerprinting.

"I can't be on a board that believes in breaking the law," he said.

PTC legal staffers have previously stated that using a temporary operating agreement to settle two outstanding lawsuits gives the agency a loophole to waive fingerprinting.

PTC attorney Cindy Oster on Wednesday also briefed the board that the agency's outside counsel views the deal as "legally defensible," though the agency expects it may be challenged.

That could be soon. Local rideshare startup DriveSociety indicated after the meeting that it will sue the agency if it does not reverse Wednesday's vote.

"It is inconceivable for the PTC to simultaneously approve rules dedicated to protect the safety of the public and create operating agreements for the only two offenders of those rules," CEO Marcus Carter said.

In addition to background checks, the deal requires Uber and Lyft drivers to carry additional insurance and get their cars inspected annually. Vehicles cannot be older than 10 years.

To cover the cost of regulation, Uber will pay the PTC $250,000 per year and Lyft will pay $125,000. The amounts are based on the number of cars each has operating in the county.

Uber and Lyft drivers spoke at the meeting, calling for board members to support the deal.

Elizabeth Henson said she had been driving for Uber for only three weeks but had learned how customers value the service.

"My riders are mostly young people that don't own cars. They can't afford to own cars," she said. "I give them rides to and from work and school, and I feel privileged to do that."

But taxicab owners questioned the deal.

"We should not be rewarding those we have already acknowledged are breaking the law," said Louis Minardi, the owner of Yellow Cab Co. of Tampa.

On Wednesday, the PTC board also approved spending $75,000 to hire an outside firm to investigate whether the agency is too cozy with the taxicab and limousine rental industry it regulates.

It comes after a Tampa Bay Times report revealed that the agency used taxicab and limousine staffers during sting operations to catch ridesharing drivers. The report led incoming state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, to request the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate Cockream.

The PTC plans to look for an interim executive director in the meantime.

At the end of the meeting, Higginbotham was elected as the agency's new chairman. Crist, who also serves as a county commissioner, announced in September that he wants to be assigned to a new board or agency during the County Commission's re-organization later this month.