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That six-seat electric car you see around downtown is officially a limo

One of the Downtowner cars is seen during the service's first night of operation in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2016. The free service has now been designated as a low-speed non-luxury limousine by the Public Transportation Commission meaning the Tampa Downtown Partnerhsip can start selling advertisements to raise revenue for the program.  [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]
One of the Downtowner cars is seen during the service's first night of operation in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2016. The free service has now been designated as a low-speed non-luxury limousine by the Public Transportation Commission meaning the Tampa Downtown Partnerhsip can start selling advertisements to raise revenue for the program. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]
Published Feb. 25, 2017

TAMPA — A "stretch golf cart" is one of the more irreverent descriptions of the six-seat electric cars that putter around downtown Tampa.

But now the Downtowner can officially claim the cachet of being a limousine, albeit a low-speed, non-luxury one.

Public Transportation Commission board members approved that designation in a recent decision to regulate the fleet of 12 electric cars that give free rides around downtown. It was done at the request of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which launched the service in October.

The change is about more than status.

Putting the vehicles under the regulation of the PTC means the cars can legally be used as commercial vehicles like taxicabs. There are no plans to start charging for rides but the partnership plans to sell advertising on the cars, said Karen Kress, the partnership's director of transportation and planning.

It also means drivers will now be able to accept tips, although the partnership may lower their hourly pay accordingly.

Falling under the auspices of the PTC also means more paperwork. Each drivers will have to pass a fingerprint-based background check and apply for a public vehicle driver's license. Downtowner, the company that runs the service, will have to purchase $350 vehicle permits for each car and a $1,000 certificate to operate.

The free service covers an area from the north end of Harbour Island to Interstate 275, and from the University of Tampa area to the Channel District.

Passengers hail a ride using a smart-phone app. Since its launch, the service has racked up 58,000 rides.

But its popularity is also hampering the growth of the service. Only six cars are on the road at one time, while the other six cars are recharged.

That can mean long wait times, sometimes up to 40 minutes.

"People are getting frustrated with the wait time," Kress said. "We need to find ways to get more revenue so we can expand and enhance the service."

One option the partnership is exploring is to get more funding from state and local agencies. Kress is scheduled to meet next week with officials from the city, Florida Department of Transportation and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

If the Downtowner can meet some of downtown's transit needs and complement other transit services, then it might make sense for agencies like HART to switch resources elsewhere and assist in funding, Kress said.

The service costs about $1 million per year. Initial funding sources included a $560,000 award from downtown and Channel District community development funds. The state DOT has already pledged to pay $150,000 for three years. Downtown commercial office towers and hotels have also pitched in with contributions, Kress said.

The switch to allowing drivers to accept tips will probably go into effect in the spring.

AJ Chambers, who began driving a Downtowner a few weeks ago, said he makes about $11 per hour.

Passengers often want to tip so being able to accept them would be a welcome change, the 23-year-old said.

"It's free so people are in a good mood," he said.

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