A tech-savvy alternative to traditional taxi service has been popping up in major U.S. cities over the past few years. The company is called Uber, and it specializes in providing rapid-response car service to customers who interact with the service via smartphone app.
Uber began in San Francisco in 2010, and has since expanded to Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York City. And for a brief shining moment a year ago, Tampa Bay area residents were able to get a taste of the popular service when Uber came to town for the Republican National Convention. But the trendy car service didn't stick around post-RNC because of a mandated $50-minimum charge for limos and other premium cars imposed by Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission.
That mandate is one reason that state Senator Jeff Brandes wants to eliminate the controversial agency.
"Here’s a company that will transcend regions, that wants to operate in our backyard, that has a phenomenal product that people are using around the country, and we’re going to be considered a backwater if we don’t bring them here," says Brandes, speaking to CL after participating in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the remodeled Westshore Macy's department store. (Congresswoman Kathy Castor & Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen also participated in the ceremonies.)
The St.Petersburg-based legislator said he had dinner with Uber officials last week, and they contend that "arcane rules" are keeping the company out of Florida. To be clear, however, it's not just the PTC's rules that are keeping Uber out of Florida.
The innovative company has also been stifled from entering the Miami-Dade County market, hampered by regulations that require them to charge a minimum of $70, even for a quick, one-stop ride. However, a county commissioner has now proposed an ordinance that would eliminate that charge.
Both Brandes and his Hillsborough GOP colleague Jamie Grant have made noise recently about bringing up legislation in Tallahassee to kill the PTC once and for all. This new threat comes at a time when the agency is again in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, thanks to reports that Executive Director Cesar Padilla has been moonlighting from his PTC gig — a job that by itself pays more than $100,000 a year.
At a forum on transportation issues held in Tampa this spring, Mayor Bob Buckhorn suggested that the agency be terminated, a notion that Brandes said he agrees with.
"Other than insiders that are regulated by the industry, I have not had one person comment to me that this is a positive industry for this community and I think some of their initiatives have had a negative impact on the entire region," said the state Senator, who represents parts of both Pinellas and Hillsborough County in Tallahassee. "That’s very concerning to me when policies from this community start spilling into other communities which I represent, I think that’s something that we need to address."
As a member of the legislature, it's an issue that Brandes can actually do something about, since changing the PTC's mandate requires a bill in Tallahassee, where the agency was created by the legislature in 1976. That makes the PTC unique in the Sunshine State, where transportation agencies are usually handled at the local level.
Earlier this week, Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist told CL that he had similar misgivings about the agency before he took over over as board chairman at the beginning of 2013. He says there are numerous pro-consumer benefits that the PTC provides for the county, but Brandes dismissed those comments, saying in a struggling economy it makes no sense to hold back small businesses like Uber with a rule that requires a $50 payment to get into a limousine.
"That’s just an arbitrary standard when it’s taking two hours for people to find a cab at the Kenny Chesney concert to get home and people are calling limousine companies saying 'I will pay for 5 hours, but just get me home,’ that’s the kind of craziness that we’re putting on by having completely arbitrary and capricious standards."