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  1. Transportation

Ride-sharing service Lyft launches in Tampa despite PTC warning

Published Apr. 5, 2014

TAMPA — Lyft is going rogue. The ride-sharing service, which uses a smartphone application to connect passengers with drivers who use their personal vehicles, began accepting passengers in Tampa on Friday evening.

That happened despite a letter sent last month to Lyft by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission that made it clear the San Francisco-based company does not meet the requirements to operate legally here.

"It is a noncertified company in Hillsborough County picking up passengers for hire," PTC interim executive director Kevin Jackson said Friday. "They should be complying. If not, we have to do something about it."

But the PTC, which regulates all vehicles for hire, could soon lose much of its power if a bill moving through the Florida Legislature succeeds.

Refashioned Friday to take aim at the agency, the proposal initially sought to let technology-based transportation companies circumvent local municipalities and win approval directly from the state. It was nicknamed the "Uber Bill,'' after the California-based digital booking service that has been rebuffed by government agencies in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties.

On Friday, Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, gutted the bill and instead proposed new rules for the state's 10 special transportation districts, including the PTC, which has more power than others.

Under Grant's revised proposal, special districts could not impose a minimum wait time or fare on app-based commercially licensed driver services, such as town cars and limousines. Special districts would also be prohibited from restricting the number of available limousine permits.

Grant said the bill was not intended to weaken the PTC, but rather to allow innovative companies like Uber to compete in the marketplace.

"These regulations are keeping drivers from an opportunity and consumers from a better price," he said

A similar bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, will be addressed in the Senate Transportation Committee next week.

PTC chairman and Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said that while he is not against making some changes to allow new technology, any decisions should be made in Hillsborough instead of Tallahassee.

"I hope to bring it home and build a consensus we can all deal with," Crist said.

While the bill would make way for Uber's black car service to operate here, it would not affect ride-sharing services such as Lyft, which the PTC considers a taxicab company.

Lyft, which bills itself as a technology company, sees things differently.

"Lyft's new peer-to-peer model does not easily fit into existing frameworks," Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said in an email Friday, "which is why we created a strict set of safety standards that are far more strict than what's required of taxis and limos."

But without proper licensing, drivers will be subject to multiple citations or, in rare cases, misdemeanors, Jackson said. The fines range from $20 to $500.

Inspectors will be on the lookout for drivers of cars with Lyft's signature fuzzy pink mustaches affixed to the grille, Jackson said.

"They may not have any clue they are doing anything wrong," Jackson said. "But why wouldn't Lyft explain that there might be some conflicts here? They know."

Lyft said it will stand behind its drivers.

A map on Lyft's website shows the coverage area to include the area west to Tampa International Airport, east to Ybor City, south to MacDill Air Force Base and north to Carrollwood. Service is available for free for the first two weeks to those who sign up as Lyft Pioneers.

Lyft's Tampa drivers include a doctoral student, an environmental scientist and a stay-at-home mom, Thelen said. The company does not directly employ any drivers or own any vehicles. Instead, drivers are paid through an app, which suggests recommended donations. Drivers and passengers rate each other to prevent either party from abusing the system.

Drivers go through criminal and driving background checks while their vehicles must pass inspection and be less than 7 years old. Lyft also provides additional insurance, including $1 million liability insurance covering passengers.

To use the app, passengers must have a Facebook account and provide a credit card.

Those safety measures are reassuring to Carley Kramer, 30, of Lakeland, who became one of Tampa's first Lyft drivers after hearing of a friend's experience driving for the company in Pittsburgh.

"I'm so excited. It's exactly what Tampa needs," Kramer said. "As a young woman, I don't feel comfortable taking public transportation around, and the only alternative is to drive."

As for whether it is legal for her to pick up passengers in her 2013 neon green Hyundai Accent, the University of Tampa employee said she hasn't heard otherwise.

"I don't know anything about it," Kramer said. "I'm not worried about it."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

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