Proposal to kill Hillsborough County's controversial Transportation Commission dead … for now

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click to enlarge Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is a strong supporter of the PTC. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is a strong supporter of the PTC.
  • Chip Weiner
  • Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is a strong supporter of the PTC.

No local government agency has received more scorn and ridicule than Hillsborough County's Public Transportation Commission (PTC). The PTC's most recent embarrassment occurred over the summer, when then-executive director Cesar Padilla retired after being busted moonlighting as a sheriff's deputy while making $107,000 (of public money) for his commission job. It was just the latest setback for the agency responsible for regulating taxis, limousines, vans and basic life-support ambulances in the county — the only entity of its type in Florida.

Because the commission was created in 1976 by special act of state Legislature, it would require lawmakers in Tallahassee to dismantle it. But a proposal to begin that process, sponsored by Tampa Bay Area Republicans Jamie Grant and Jeff Brandes, went down in defeat on Monday at the local delegation meeting of Hillsborough-area state lawmakers on the USF campus.

Although both lawmakers said that the agency's antiquated bureaucracy was stifling innovation (a charge made by supporters of the alternative car-service Uber), too many other local legislators said they were concerned about who would take over the regulation duties of the agency if it was dismantled.

"Whatever you make think of the PTC, it provides a regulatory structure," said Brandon Republican Representative Ross Spano. "My concern is, what will replace it?"

That line of argument seemed to animate other lawmakers as well. Tampa GOP Representative Dana Young said a similar bill proposed in 2010 by former state Senator Ronda Storms died on the vine because nobody then stood up to pick up the regulatory powers currently held by the PTC.

"I'm worried because we haven't had anybody come up here today and say they want it," Young said, adding that she didn't care who regulates the private car market in Hillsborough County, but that somebody had to. "If there is not a definitive 100 percent path to regulations for these industries, then I will not support this when it gets to the Legislature."

Passage of the bill in next year's legislative session would not have been the last word on the issue, as the proposed legislation would have mandated that county voters decide the PTC's fate in a referendum.

As Representative Young said, there have been previous efforts to kill the PTC, all to no avail. No industry has fought such efforts more strenuously than the local cab industry, which was well represented at today's meeting. Many local cabbies stood up and said that they supported the agency (a notable change from when the Storms' bill was discussed in 2010).

Emotions ran high at times during the meeting, during which Louis Minardi, the president of Yellow Cab in Tampa, blasted Representative Grant for saying he had an "open-door policy" when in fact the door was closed to him to discuss the legislation. Grant later said he was offended by the comment.

Another strong supporter of maintaining the status quo was Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who currently chairs the PTC (Crist laid out his vision for reforming the agency in a CL story published back in September).

Crist related an incident that occurred to him and his family while visiting Disney World last month that he said showed what happens when you don't have a strong agency regulating car service. He said a trip from his motel in Orlando to the theme park only cost him and his family $8, but on returning back to his hotel three different van operators were charging him a flat $20 fee. "This has not been well thought out," he admonished the local legislators.

Crist has said that he is working on a number of reforms (such as the rule that sedan and limo drivers charge at least $50 per ride) to present soon, though he has not yet done so.

At the end of the meeting, a frustrated Grant realized that the bill's chances were doomed. "Hillsborough County is not going to be a region where innovation and disruption is welcome. That's what a no vote says today."

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