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With the ax hanging over it, PTC in legal limbo

Chairman Al Higginbotham says he won’t block efforts to abolish the Public Transportation Commission.
Chairman Al Higginbotham says he won’t block efforts to abolish the Public Transportation Commission.
Published Dec. 15, 2016

TAMPA — Wednesday should have been the beginning of a new era for the Public Transportation Commission with new board leadership and a long-running dispute with Uber and Lyft finally in the rearview mirror.

Instead, the agency is showing all the optimism of death row.

A bill backed by Republican lawmakers from the Tampa Bay area would abolish the agency, if approved. That threat has left the PTC in something of a legal limbo.

That has taxicab, limousine companies and Uber all questioning why they should pay annual fees for 2017 to an agency unlikely to survive the calendar year.

And at the agency's board meeting Wednesday, members seemed resigned to the agency's fate. They decided to wait until after Friday's meeting of the county's legislative delegation before determining whether to waive any 2017 fees. They also plan to hire a transition leader instead of replacing outgoing executive director Kyle Cockream with a permanent appointment.

New PTC chairman Al Higginbotham said the role for the board now is to "right the ship" and ensure consumer protections the agency provides are not lost.

"We can't change the past," he said. "We have no intention of opposing the act of the legislation. I think it's an opportunity to remake and redirect the oversight of the industry."

How much say the board gets remains to be seen.

The bill, filed by state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, would simply abolish the agency and transfer its responsibilities to Hillsborough County government by Oct. 1.

Higginbotham said that Hills­borough County Administrator Mike Merrill wants until the end of next year to work out operating agreements with Tampa and other municipalities.

He also wants reassurances that the county will not inherit PTC debts or liabilities. That could include taxicab and limo companies seeking reimbursement for the certificates, or medallions, they had to purchase to operate. Some certificates were sold at auction for an average of $58,000 as recently as 2013. Their value has declined since Uber and Lyft began operating in Hillsborough.

The PTC was established by a special state law in 1976 to provide a centralized system of regulation of taxicabs, which was split across the county's three cities, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation study.

It also regulates other for-hire vehicles including tow trucks, limos and ambulances. In other Florida counties, most of these tasks are handled by city or county government.

Wednesday's board meeting was the last for Cockream, a former law enforcement investigator who took over the agency in 2014, the same year it found itself at the center of the dispute between the taxicab industry and upstart arrivals Uber and Lyft.

He announced that he would step down at the end of this month after a tumultuous meeting in November when the board approved operating agreements with Uber and Lyft.

He still faces a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into whether he and the agency he led were too cozy with the taxicab and limo industry. It was requested by state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, after a Tampa Bay Times story revealed that taxi and limo drivers posed as Uber and Lyft customers in PTC sting operations.

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The agency is also in the process of hiring an independent firm to conduct its own review of Cockream, a decision made at an emergency meeting in October during which former Chairman Victor Crist said the agency's top executive was guilty of an ethics breach and a "lack of truthfulness."

In his final speech to the board, Cockream presented a wooden gavel as a gift to just one board member, Temple Terrace City Council member David Pogorilich, one of his staunchest supporters.

Cockream didn't mention Crist by name but may have been referring to the county commissioner when he said everyone should watch political intrigue drama House of Cards.

"That Netflix series truly is a reflection of what some politicians are capable of and some politicians do," Cockream said. "I'm not going to get involved in political rhetoric with one individual member; I'm not going to throw stones or daggers, although I have plenty to throw and they're plenty sharp. The time will come for that."

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