Free rides short-circuited as Tampa kills green downtown shuttle service

The PTC tramples energy efficiency and downtown development in favor of political connections.

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click to enlarge NO FREE RIDES: Not anymore, at least, now that the Public Transportation Commission has told free electric shuttles they need taxi permits. -
NO FREE RIDES: Not anymore, at least, now that the Public Transportation Commission has told free electric shuttles they need taxi permits.

For Todd Persico, the owner of Hop Tampa, last Wednesday was a "very bad day." That was when Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission voted narrowly to put free electric vehicle shuttle services, such as the one he operated, out of business.

"They determined that we were for-hire vehicles, and without permits, we're out of business," Persico said late that afternoon. The move leaves seven drivers out of work, three $18,000 vehicles in the garage and Persico scrambling to keep his business alive after a year and a half of operations.

It is a classic Catch-22; electric vehicles operators downtown say they were told they didn't need permits because they didn't charge for their rides (they make their money from advertising on the vehicles, and the drivers get tips), and since the PTC tightly controls taxi permits, they likely wouldn't be able to get them anyway. But even though they don't charge fares and mostly provide rides that the for-pay taxis won't/don't give (short hops that aren't profitable), the PTC put them out of business after cabbies complained.

The cabbies were losing fares, they maintained. Fares that, as anybody trying to get a cab in South Tampa will tell you, they don't want anyway, unlike the more coveted downtown-to-the-airport hops that cabbies really covet.

So much for energy efficiency and reducing our carbon footprints.

Services such as Persico's — and there were four of them operating in downtown Tampa and the SoHo restaurant district — show both a mind for conservation and an entrepreneurial spirit. Public transit in Tampa isn't so good, so what is wrong with the private market filling the need? Persico's expensive electric vehicles will either have to sit idle now or be moved across the Bay to St. Petersburg, which Persico is considering.

The free shuttles were hits with downtown restaurants, and several even advertised on the cars. For a restaurateur such as Ferrell Bonnemort of Cafe Dufrain on Harbour Island, the electric vehicles were a godsend; advertising on them brought new customers, and they showed up to give patrons rides home when regular cabs took forever to respond.

"Before these kinds of vehicles came about, our guests would have to wait 45 mintues for a cab," Bonnemort said.

The worst part of it all is the PTC itself and its stinky political-insider dealings. Joining anti-electric votes from County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, City Councilman Joseph Caetano and Plant City GOP supporter Dan Raulerson was County Commissioner Kevin White. While he may be best known for his expensive taste in designer suits (paid for by his campaign contributors) and a salaciuos sexual discrimination lawsuit brought by a female former aide, he also has smelly ties to the PTC and local transportation company owners. White's security business has its offices in the same stretch of Kennedy Boulevard buildings as the PTC, buildings that are owned by a couple who operate a transportation insurance company that sells to the taxi and limo industry in Tampa — the very businesses that the PTC regulates.

The PTC is also taking heat from 10Connects investigative reporter Mike Deeson, who last week detailed how Interim Executive Director Cesar Padilla spent time on his work computer cruising the website of St. Leo College, where he is enrolled in an attempt to finish a four-year college degree. He was hired as interim director by the board in 2007 despite the lack of a bachelor's degree in public administration, management, criminal justice or related field — a state requirement — and is paid $107,000 annually. One of Padilla's moves was to hire the PTC's first lobbyist (why a governmental body needs a lobby to lobby other governmental bodies is debatable, of course), Victor DiMaio, who — coincidentally? — was a campaign consultant to (wait for it...) PTC Chairman Kevin White. Padilla has said he will have his degree by the end of the year and will be eligible to have the "interim" tag taken off his title at that point.

The agenda for the meeting at which the electric shuttle plugs were pulled advertised the hearing this way: "VIII. OLD BUSINESS NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicles) for discussion." But commissioners didn't just discuss; they voted. Persico didn't even show up; he knew there was no sense battling the taxicab companies any more.

PTC wins the trifecta: Anti-competitive. Anti-environment. Anti-good government.

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