"Uber bill" survives first committee hearing in Tallahassee

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A proposal by Tampa Representative Jamie Grant that would shift control of limousine service from local governments up to Tallahassee made its way through its first committee in the Florida House this afternoon.

The proposed legislation — essentially known as the "Uber bill" because the legislation is supported by the San Francisco tech company whose app matches drivers with passengers — appears to remain a long shot for passage this year.

Supporters of Uber in Tampa are particularly unhappy that the car service isn't available here. But Uber strongly opposes the $50 minimum fare fee established by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. That's created some momentum to try to kill the PTC, the only such commission in the state. But a local bill written by Grant and state Senator Jeff Brandes that would do that was rejected by their colleagues in the Hillsborough delegation in December, so the idea appeared dead. But it isn't.
Speaking about the bill and fielding questions from members of the Transportation & Highway Safety Subcommittee, Grant acted almost like a spokesman for Uber as opposed to a legislator representing parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. But he insisted that wasn't accurate, as he was making the case for similar app-based car ride services such as Lyft and Ride Command that have found audiences throughout the world, but have encountered difficulties in entering the Florida market.

Much of the current taxi and limo establishment adamantly opposes allowing such competitors in the market, as they represent an existential threat to their business models.

In the case of Hillsborough County, both Grant and Brandes are unabashed Uber supporters, and say that such opposition thwarts innovation that can allow consumers more choices when it comes to getting a ride.

Unfortunately for Uber, the service has experienced a spate of negative publicity following a meteoric rise over the past couple of years. Nothing has been worse than the reports about their so-called "surge pricing," by which the service raises its fees using a secret algorithm on particularly busy days and nights. It happened back in December during a snowstorm in New York City, with Jessica Seinfeld's complaint about a $415 ride making headlines, while a woman in Los Angeles said she had to pay $357 for a 14-mile ride.

At today's hearing, Grant underwent tough questioning from mostly Democrats on the panel, including Hazel Rogers of Broward County, who didn't seem to be mollified when Grant said that just as riders can rate drivers on Uber's website, drivers can rate passengers as well.

When it came time for the public to weigh in, not a single soul was present to speak up for the bill. Most of those speaking were from the cab industry, though a representative from the Florida League of Cities also spoke against the proposal, not pleased that it would cede local control to the Legislature.

Despite the unrelenting opposition, the committee, like all in Tallahassee consisting of more Republicans than Democrats, passed the bill.

Committee Chair Daniel Davis' final words to Grant after the vote were succinct. "You got a lot of work to do," he said. But it survives for now.

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