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  1. Opinion

Column: Hillsborough's PTC has a continuing role in consumer protection

Without question, this has been a difficult year for the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. There were allegations that it is too cozy with companies it regulates, and a contentious journey that thankfully has resulted in an operating agreement allowing Uber and Lyft to do business legally in the county.

These challenges have led to a number of Hillsborough residents — without an understanding of the other types of for-hire transportation the PTC regulates beyond taxis, Uber and Lyft — to call for disbanding the commission.

But as the Florida House and Senate seek a solution through legislative changes in the coming session of the Legislature, let's think about a key question: Should there be consumer protection for those who use for-hire transportation, including the disabled, as well as for those who are affected by towing and ambulance companies?

My response — a resounding yes — mirrors the feelings of many citizens in the Tampa Bay area.

If you are unlawfully towed or have a bad experience with a for-hire transportation service in Pinellas, Manatee or other area county, you have no recourse except to complain to the company providing the service. But in Hillsborough County, the PTC — created through a special act by the Legislature — serves as a third-party agency to help consumers.

And those who advocate eliminating consumer protection for other types of transportation beyond Uber and Lyft might not be aware of the value the PTC provides to consumers. Several examples:

• The agency conducts background checks on more than 1,000 public vehicle drivers each year, while also doing vehicle inspections.

• In the past year, the PTC has helped more than 20 consumers get all or part of their money back after questionable or illegal tows, while helping hundreds of other consumers who have called with questions.

• The agency ensures that all basic life support ambulances in Hillsborough have proper equipment and that drivers have the proper level of training to serve as BLS first responders.

A number of options are being discussed for changing the state's special act that created the PTC, tied to wider discussions by our state legislators about how best to regulate the rideshare industry across Florida. Among them: abolish the PTC and have its duties handled by Hillsborough County.

In my roles as chairman of the PTC's board and as a Hillsborough County commissioner, I can see the merits of seriously considering this idea, as long as the consumer protection provided by the agency remains in place for county residents and visitors who use taxis, limos or rideshares or who have dealings with towing or ambulance companies.

Also, it's important that Hillsborough's three cities and its county taxpayers don't get saddled with extra costs if the PTC's functions move under the county's purview. Contrary to what you might hear, the PTC is not taxpayer-funded; it is funded by fees paid by the companies it regulates. So keeping this funding system in place would ensure that there would be no extra day-to-day cost to taxpayers if responsibilities were transferred to the county.

As the discussion moves forward in the coming state legislative session, my hope is that the Legislature can create statewide rules for the for-hire transportation industry — including both taxi and rideshare companies — that provide a level playing field for all.

I hope that as the Legislature considers the future of the PTC, it keeps in place the consumer protection for all types of for-hire transportation. If you agree, I urge you to contact your state legislator and relay your thoughts on this matter.

There is a difference between having a level playing field — which is imperative — and having no regulation or consumer protection at all. Let's choose the former and not the latter.

Al Higginbotham serves as chairman of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission's Board and is a member of the Hillsborough County Commission, representing countywide District 7.

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