1. Opinion

Column: Hillsborough PTC should reject rideshare regs

The Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission will consider a controversial set of proposed regulations today that could jeopardize the continued operation of rideshare companies within Hillsborough County and seriously impede our ability to develop a regional transportation system. If the PTC continues down its current regulatory path, we not only risk losing these companies but we may also gain national notoriety as a community that rejected new technology and industry innovation, and simultaneously failed to address its growing transportation concerns.

The proposed mandates would require rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft to collect and submit fingerprint data for their drivers, impose seven-minute minimum wait times on their passengers and increase minimum fares to $7, with stiffer penalties prescribed for noncompliance. Similar proposed regulations have led rideshare companies to suspend operations in Broward County and completely exit the market in Austin, Texas.

While the safety and well-being of our residents and visitors is of the utmost importance, reasonable solutions can and must be achieved. Nearly 70 cities in over 30 states have created satisfactory regulatory structures that address security, insurance and compliance, and work for all parties involved. The rideshare industry has already embraced safety and security measures as part of its operating model: no cash ever changes hands, the identity of both passengers and drivers is transparent and trackable, and GPS data is logged for every trip. Beyond this, most cities have reported marked decreases in drunken driving arrests due to the availability and use of rideshare companies. Tampa Bay is no exception.

Building a regional transportation system is regularly cited as the No. 1 challenge, and opportunity, facing Tampa Bay. It's widely acknowledged that we need to develop an effective multimodal network that offers a wide range of mobility options, including premium transit, buses, ferries, bikes and automobiles. Stepping up to that challenge will be the key to attracting and retaining young talent and companies, connecting our residents to a wider range of job opportunities and, ultimately, creating a more competitive and prosperous region.

Rideshare is a significant piece of this equation and shows strong promise as a "first-mile, last-mile" option, moving people between their homes and a core transit system. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is already developing a national model through a pilot program that offers subsidized rideshare and taxi work-to-home rides to low-income, transportation-disadvantaged residents. Another pilot program in Pinellas, Direct Connect, provides low-cost rideshare and taxi service to and from the PSTA network to all riders, and that program is expanding throughout the county. Similar programs are beginning to appear in major U.S. metropolitan areas, in partnerships lauded by respected organizations such as the American Public Transportation Association, and affirmed in transportation research such as the association's recent report, "Shared Mobility and the Transformation of Public Transit."

Yet if the PTC adopts an unacceptable regulatory framework that causes the rideshare companies to suspend operations in Hillsborough County, it's likely that service throughout the entire region will be adversely affected. In this scenario, if a rideshare driver transports a passenger from a neighboring county to a destination within Hillsborough County, the driver would then have to leave Hillsborough County before picking up another passenger, and the passenger would be unable to use the rideshare service to return home. That's not the way rideshare, congestion management, or mobility is designed to work.

These inconsistent regulations create an environment that negatively impacts both rideshare businesses and their customers. Because of this, it appears that the Florida Legislature is prepared to take up the issue during the 2017 legislative session. Options on the table could include proposals to disband the PTC and shift regulatory authority to the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, or to offer a statewide regulatory structure that creates consistent, and legal, policies to guide the industry in all of the state's 67 counties. Clarification of the PTC's regulatory role, and the regulations themselves, will help to create the proper regulatory framework for a growing industry.

We look forward to working with members of the Tampa Bay legislative delegation and other state officials to craft a long-term solution to rideshare regulations when the Legislature meets in March. Until that time, we encourage the PTC to refrain from any immediate actions that will disrupt a service that has already provided so much benefit to our community, and promises to be a major part of a future transportation solution for our region.

Rick Homans is president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership.