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  1. Opinion

Henderson: Reading rules shows Hillsborough stifles taxis' competition

We have departments for just about everything in Hillsborough County. Don't believe me? Look it up yourself on the county's website. There are so many departments, they had to be bunched into three different long lists.

And apparently, we have a department dedicated to making sure competition that could lead to lower prices and happier consumers is squashed, although it isn't spelled out that way.

No, the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission would be happy as one of those faceless agencies that affect our lives in ways we're not sure we want or need. Those guys had a pretty sweet deal going, too, until people started looking their way and going, "Whaaaaa?"

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, among others, all but declared war this month on the PTC, and once again we ask: Do we really need this agency?

Actually, Buckhorn long ago decided the PTC not only was unnecessary, but actually is an impediment to progress. His outburst at a midweek news conference was just a continuation of that theme. If you have followed the PTC's holy war with ride providers Uber and Lyft, you know what he means.

The PTC loves to assure the public that it's all about making sure cab companies and other parts of the transportation industry operate safely. The ways the PTC tries to keep us safe is spelled out on the county website in 91 pages of regulations — or, as it explains in large, bold type on the cover page, "Rules."

We'll get into some of those in a bit.

Meantime, consider this: The PTC is funded by fees it charges the companies it regulates. In turn, the commission sets up rules that, you can argue, benefit those companies by stifling competition. In the mob movies, they call that paying for protection.

Did I say "stifling" competition? How can that be, when there are 41 licensed cab companies in Hillsborough? There are 63 companies that provide van services. There are 71 licensed wrecker outfits. There are more limousine companies than I wanted to count. They all are regulated by the PTC.

Sounds like there is a lot of competition, right?

Not necessarily. Let's look at some of those rules.

To get a license to operate a cab in the county, you have to fill out a 15-page application and pay a $1,000 nonrefundable fee, plus another $600 to a hearing officer. That application includes four places that have to be notarized.

There are all sorts of legal blah-blah-blahs in those 91 pages of rules that govern how the various companies have to operate. The PTC says that's designed to protect passengers, but it is also designed to fix prices and make it hard for companies like Uber and Lyft to leverage their competitive advantage.

That is spelled out ever so subtly on Page 7 of the application: "Describe why current level of service provided by existing service providers and/or other forms of transportation is inadequate. B: Describe how your proposed service will satisfy this inadequacy."

Translation: Our buddies at the other cab companies have that route covered, pal. No butting in line. No undercharging the cost of ride.

It's not even about the cost, though. It's about allowing those customers who would just rather summon a lift on Uber through an app on their phones to do that. Lots of people just like those companies better. Telling them they can't makes people want to do it even more because who wants to play by rules that are in opposition to progress?

I suspect we are a long way from reaching any lasting truce between the establishment and the newcomers. It doesn't look like this town is big enough for both of them.

Contact Joe Henderson at joehtampa@gmail.com

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