1. Opinion

Editorial: Cars for hire must put safety first

Published Apr. 22, 2014

Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission has been its own worst enemy, acting as a way station for corrupt officials while limiting competition in the taxicab industry. But that does not mean that for-hire car services should be allowed to sprout like weeds and operate on the county's roads without any reasonable safety guarantees for paying passengers. Yet that is happening, thanks in part to a rushed and incomplete effort by two Tampa Bay legislators.

The ride-sharing service Lyft began taking passengers in Tampa this month, even though the company is not licensed by the PTC. The agency contacted Lyft and another provider, the digital booking service Uber, to bring them into compliance. But that is not the way regulations should work.

Companies cannot go off on their own and dismiss the law as some meddlesome hurdle to their business plan. The PTC's rules are archaic and amount to price supports; the $50 base fare for limousine service is a back-door way of keeping taxis competitive. But the right course of action is to change the law, not break it. Until then, the PTC has a public duty to keep these unlicensed carriers off the streets.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, tried and failed to persuade the area delegation to back a bill this session that would have brought an orderly end to this agency. Its 10-person staff easily could be folded into county government. But the bill they are pushing would help the limousine services rather than address the larger problems with the PTC's regulatory control. It is fine to remove the $50 minimum fare for limousine service, but not through a process that clears the way for flooding the market with unlimited operators overnight.

In a conference call arranged Tuesday by Uber, Brandes and Grant said the legislation is needed to bring on-demand car services to other Florida cities, including Miami and Orlando. But focusing narrowly on luxury car services amounts to cherry-picking winners and losers. A more responsible approach would be to address the market for on-demand car services while underscoring the public safety role that local agencies play in ensuring that hired drivers and vehicles are safe and reliable.

Lawmakers should come back next year with a comprehensive approach to retooling the agency. In the meantime, the PTC has a waiver process for car services that are ignoring the law. The agency has shown restraint up to now by issuing warnings to Lyft drivers instead of civil citations. But that tolerance cannot last indefinitely. This effort is all about money, and it's time to balance this discussion over the market and innovation with an understanding of the safety interests in regulating who and what can carry passengers on the roads of this state.


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