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Uber campaign targets Hillsborough PTC board members

TAMPA — Rideshare behemoth Uber has launched a last-ditch campaign to derail new regulations it says may drive the company out of Hillsborough County.

In emails titled "Uber needs you," it is calling on passengers and drivers to lobby Public Transportation Commission board members to reject the new regulations that it says were pushed by taxicab and limousine rental firms.

The tech-savvy startup has even resorted to that most traditional of campaign tools — mailing out about 2,000 political fliers in the districts of two PTC board members. One sent to voters in City Council member Guido Maniscalco's district includes his picture and office phone number.

"Tell him to vote NO on proposed PTC rules that will drive Uber out of Hillsborough County," it urges Uber users.

The campaign is aimed at eroding support for the new regulations ahead of Tuesday's PTC rules committee meeting.

Uber's main concern is mandatory fingerprint background checks for rideshare drivers, a sticking point that led it and rival Lyft to leave the lucrative Austin, Texas, market in May.

The rules would also establish a $7 minimum fare.

Uber has run similar campaigns ahead of other critical local government votes in Miami and Chicago. It argues that it should not have to follow antiquated regulations drawn up to govern taxicab and limousine rental firms. In Miami, commissioners agreed to legalize rideshare businesses.

Uber spokesman Javi Correoso said the PTC board needs to recognize that in a county with limited transit choices, the public has made it clear they want ridesharing as an option.

"Whether it's a wife who relies on Uber to get her visually impaired husband to appointments or a Temple Terrace teacher who depends on the supplemental income earned driving on the platform, PTC members should be aware of the impact ridesharing has had on their constituents," Correoso said.

Maniscalco said he has already received more than 1,000 emails and roughly 60 phone calls from rideshare users urging him to vote against the proposal.

He said he does not plan to support the proposal and will call for a compromise on background checks.

"When you see overwhelming response that is positive, you have to do what the people say," he said.

Ridesharing has been a thorny issue for the PTC, which regulates for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough County.

It has come under pressure from taxicab and limousine rental firms that say Uber and Lyft are thumbing their nose at rules about vehicle inspections and commercial driver insurance while capturing a big share of their business.

But the PTC has also come under fire from Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who has said the agency is stifling innovation.

The new rules would finally provide a framework for ridesharing in Hillsborough some two years after Uber and Lyft began operating in the county.

If approved by the rules committee, the regulations would go before the full PTC board on Sept. 14. Unless they are adopted as emergency rules, they can be challenged by Uber or Lyft, meaning a second public hearing would be held, likely in October.

The office phone number and email address of PTC board chairman Victor Crist is included in an Uber online release.

Crist said he found that ironic since earlier this year he pushed for the PTC board to agree to lower-level background checks that both Lyft and Uber agreed to in negotiations.

"Lyft likes to operate with bridge-building and peacemaking whereas Uber likes to throw their weight around and use bully tactics," he said.

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

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