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Uber ups pressure on PTC ahead of key vote on ridesharing

TAMPA — With the Public Transportation Commission just days from a vote on strict new ridesharing regulations, Uber is stepping up efforts to derail the proposal.

The rideshare giant is already pushing an online and mailer campaign asking its customers and drivers to lobby PTC board members. It also is asking an appellate court to rule that the PTC does not have jurisdiction over rideshare firms.

Its latest tactic is a letter to the PTC claiming that the agency broke state law by failing to post an agenda on its website at least one week ahead of Wednesday's critical meeting when board members are expected to vote on the new regulations.

In the letter sent Thursday, Uber attorney Kate Wooler says the agency that regulates for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough County is violating the Florida Administrative Procedures Act. It states an agenda must be prepared at least seven days in advance so a copy can be provided if requested.

Cindy Oster, an assistant county attorney who represents the PTC, said she is reviewing the complaint but noted that Uber and Lyft representatives were at several PTC rules committee meetings when the proposals were discussed and the date of the meeting was announced.

"They would be hard-pressed to argue they were not aware of or put on notice of what will be discussed," she said.

The agenda for the meeting was not posted online until Friday morning. That is business as usual for a PTC meeting, said Kyle Cockream, PTC executive director.

"In the 21/2 years I've been here, it's always been done like that," he said.

The battle between innovation and regulation in Hillsborough is one that has played out in dozens of cities nationwide. Uber, which was valued at $62 billion by Bloomberg, has a lobbying presence in almost every statehouse. It has 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols across the United States, roughly one-third more than Wal-Mart, according to a Bloomberg report.

Still, it doesn't always win. The company, and main competitor Lyft, pulled out of Austin, Texas, after residents there passed a referendum mandating full background checks for drivers.

Uber is warning that could be Hillsborough's fate, too, if the new rules pass. That would affect drivers all across Tampa Bay since they would not be able to take fares into Hillsborough.

But some PTC board members counter that rideshare regulations are needed to keep the public safe.

The proposal includes annual vehicle inspections and fingerprint-based background checks for drivers. More controversial are a $7 minimum fare and a seven-minute minimum wait time for passengers.

The wait is because rideshare vehicles would be classified as similar to nonluxury limousines. Under PTC rules, those vehicles are required to follow a minimum wait time in order not to take business away from taxicab drivers.

It's not just Uber that is pressuring the PTC.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is warning he will file legislation aimed at curbing the PTC's authority.

And like Uber, Lyft has also appealed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal to rule that the PTC cannot ticket its drivers.

Drivers and rideshare customers also are adding their names to an online petition calling on PTC board members to reject the proposed rules.

As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had received more than 1,800 signatures. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn mentioned the petition on Twitter, writing: "You know what to do … "

Michelle Bogan, a 33-year-old South Florida paralegal who drove for Uber for six months to make extra money to pay her legal fees during a divorce, is among the signatories. She said many of her passengers were people getting home from bars.

"If Uber were to leave, I guarantee DUIs will go up," she said. "People aren't going to pay the rates of taxicabs."

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

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