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Push to expand in Tampa Bay puts ride-share services at odds with regulators

Published Jun. 14, 2014

TAMPA — Riders call them convenient. Regulators call them risky.

Almost immediately after pushing into the Tampa Bay market as part of an aggressive expansion, ride-sharing programs Uber and Lyft find themselves defending their operations and trying to distinguish their services from taxis.

It's a ride with a friend, Lyft says. It's technology and not transportation, Uber says.

It's a matter of public safety — or lack thereof, contends Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission, which regulates for-hire vehicles such as taxis and limousines.

According to executive director Kyle Cockream, Uber and Lyft don't carry the proper insurance to protect passengers, don't conduct adequate background checks on drivers and don't have the necessary certification to operate.

Uber and Lyft argue that the laws are antiquated and don't apply to their business models. The companies, Cockream counters, are lawbreakers.

"I've never had a group of organized criminals tell us or the federal government, 'Your laws don't fit in our business model, so we're going to continue to break the law,' " he said. "They will have to make some changes. We're not just going to roll over on this."

•••

Uber launched its smartphone app in 2010, and Lyft followed shortly after. The two are now operating in more than 60 U.S. cities and drawing big-time investors. Uber, which operates several services, including the ride-share model UberX, spans 38 countries and is valued at more than $18 billion.

Both companies allow customers to request a ride through smartphone apps from drivers who don't have the same costly licenses and permits required of taxi drivers. They say their services are not only more affordable, but altogether different from those of a taxi service.

"Typically, we hear that sitting in the front seat and talking and conversing with the driver makes it feel like you're taking a ride with a friend," Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said.

Drivers, who set their own hours and use their own cars, take home 80 percent of profits, while the companies take 20 percent.

Because Uber doesn't directly employ drivers — but rather partners with them — spokesman Taylor Bennett said Uber is not a transportation company. Its product, he said, is the mobile platform.

But both outfits are widely under fire for operating outside regulations. At least 14 states have issued warnings about the risks of using ride-shares. Taxi and livery firms in Connecticut and Texas are suing the companies. More than 30,000 taxi drivers protested Wednesday in Europe. In Miami-Dade County, officials have impounded three Lyft cars.

•••

Here in Tampa, the complications thicken as the Public Transportation Commission — a regulatory agency of three inspectors and a board of elected officials — tries figure out how the newcomers fit into the existing climate.

Taxi and limousine owners complain that these new competitors are playing by different rules and facing relatively little backlash. Tensions rise the longer these two companies operate in the county while skirting regulation.

Among the areas of contention: insurance. Cockream said drivers may be liable for injuries resulting from accidents in their cars, and passengers may not realize they, too, might not be covered.

Both ride-share outfits maintain that their safety standards and insurance policies are adequate. Both advertise a $1 million excess liability insurance policy for passengers and third parties.

The problem, Uber spokesman Bennett said, is that regulations such as those in place in Hillsborough and elsewhere were developed before the alternatives were ever imagined.

"It's our job to help modernize those regulations and ensure ride sharing and other mobile platforms are able to function properly and work with that regulatory framework," Bennett said.

Cockream doesn't buy that.

After a month of issuing warnings and trying to educate drivers, inspectors for the transportation agency are hitting drivers with fines that can total $800.

So far, inspectors here have fined 12 drivers and issued 44 tickets. If Lyft and Uber continue to operate, regulators are not afraid to take things further, Cockream said.

"By law, we could actually arrest these people," he said. "We'd like that it doesn't escalate to that point, but the Public Transportation Commission … should not turn a blind eye to people that have been warned repeatedly and continue to operate. So I'm not going to take arrests off the table."

It's not difficult to find the perpetrators, Cockream said. Many Lyft drivers place notable pink mustaches on their vehicles, and some Uber drivers have a blue symbol on their windshields.

Plus, inspectors can open either app and see nearby drivers. They've even had people call in with the locations of drivers, asking the agency to arrest or fine them.

But Bennett said Uber has no intention of closing up shop here.

"It was disappointing, after a number of productive conversations we've had with the PTC, for them to use scare tactics like that," he said. "We support our driver partners fully, so we're going to cover whatever costs, financial or legal, that are associated with these misguided citations."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com and (813) 661-2443.

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