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Regulators relent on some Uber, Lyft rules, but stick by fingerprint requirement

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — Don't delete that Uber or Lyft app from your smartphone just yet, but consider looking for alternatives.

In a major setback for the two firms, the Public Transportation Commission on Wednesday greenlighted strict new regulations for ridesharing in Hillsborough County.

Despite appeals and petitions from hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers and riders, PTC board members voted 5-2 to move ahead with new regulations that mandate fingerprinting for drivers — a requirement that led the two rideshare market leaders in May to stop operating in Austin, Texas.

Other new rules include annual vehicle inspections, a ban on price surging during states of emergency and a 10-year limit on the age of vehicles.

Board members did offer some concessions to ridesharing fans, dropping two controversial rules that would have set a $7 minimum fare and a seven-minute minimum wait.

Uber and Lyft are likely to continue operating in Hillsborough County for a while yet. The new rules will not formally be adopted until they are approved at a second public meeting Oct. 13. Even then, they are likely to be challenged by Uber and Lyft in administrative court, meaning they could be delayed for months. The two companies are also asking an appeals court to rule that the PTC has no jurisdiction over ridesharing.

Live blog: Follow today's meeting

Still, Wednesday's vote was a bold move by an agency that has come under threat of abolition from some Florida lawmakers who have accused it of stifling business and innovation. Just this week, a group of 13 state lawmakers, chambers of commerce and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn all urged the PTC to wait for the state Legislature to adopt statewide rules during the 2017 session.

But board members said they were emboldened by comments from Michael Leto, chief executive officer of rideshare firm FARE, one of the companies that filled the vacuum left by Uber and Lyft in Austin. Leto said his firm has more than 3,000 drivers on the job in the urban Texas community after agreeing to fingerprinting.

PTC Chairman Victor Crist, who serves on the Hillsborough County Commission, said Uber and Lyft don't obey the current rules and are unlikely to obey any new ones.

"What we're doing here is creating rules that will open the door for all other ride share firms to come into this market," he said.

Board members Ken Hagan, a county commissioner, and Guido Maniscalco, a Tampa City Council member, voted against adopting the new rules.

The popularity of rideshare shows that the public feels safe using the service, Maniscalco said.

"We often use fear to peddle policy and call it public safety," he said. "I would leave it up to Tallahassee to revisit this."

Uber and Lyft officials declined to say whether they will consider pulling out of Hillsborough or what their next move might be. But they were critical of the PTC, saying the agency is putting the employment of thousands of drivers at risk.

"What we just saw in the room is just the latest step in the PTC's bizarre year-long crusade against people in Hillsborough County who want nothing more than a safe and reliable ride," said Colin Tooze, an Uber public affairs manager. "It's strange. It's no way to run a county."

Tooze also highlighted a letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission by state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, asking that it investigate whether the rules are anti-competitive and protective of the taxicab industry.

In a separate vote, board members did leave a back door open to repairing relationships with Uber and Lyft. The board agreed to resume talks to settle ongoing lawsuits seeking to overturn tickets issued to rideshare drivers for operating without insurance and permits comparable to a taxicab. Previous talks stalled on the issue of fingerprinting, however.

House Majority Leader Dana Young, who wrote to PTC board members this week urging them to reject the rules, said the agency was acting in the interest of taxicab firms.

"The PTC is clearly out of touch with the public and, instead of protecting safety, they are just protecting entrenched special interests," she said.

The letter was signed by 12 other state lawmakers. With a new state Senate leader in 2017, she said it's more likely the Legislature will pass statewide rules for ridesharing that would supersede any passed by the PTC.

Uber and Lyft began operating in Hillsborough in 2014.

Under pressure from taxicab firms concerned at the impact on their business, the PTC ticketed rideshare drivers for operating without permits and the required level of insurance.

Rideshare firms argue that those regulations, devised for the taxicab industry, should not apply to them since their vehicles are not metered. They conduct their own background checks on drivers and require vehicle inspections.

Both Uber and Lyft have agreed to regulations in 36 states and dozens of larger cities including Miami-Dade County.

But Uber in particular is resistant to level II background checks, instead advocating for its own system, which does not require drivers to show up in person and get fingerprinted. The company instead uses a process that includes county, federal and multistate criminal background checks.

But PTC rules require fingerprinting of taxicab and limousine rental firm drivers. Board members Al Higinbotham, a county commissioner, Frank Reddick, who serves on Tampa City Council, and Temple Terrace Council member David Pogorilich said they were not prepared to compromise on that safety issue for ridesharing.

"All it take is one evil person to pick up one inebriated person and everyone will be looking at us to say why didn't you do something," Pogorilich said.

The meeting was preceded by a protest of about 100 rideshare drivers and supporters outside the Frederick B. Karl County Center on Kennedy Boulevard.

Juan Nova, 35, who has been working for both Lyft and Uber for two months, said he is worried he will lose his job if the PTC pushes ridesharing firms out of the county. He is the father of three children.

"I want to know if this is something that I can still use to help my income," he said.

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

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