New bill would open up competition on limo services

Local governments, consider yourselves warned. Your license to regulate transportation innovation soon could be revoked.

Technology companies offering alternatives to traditional limousine and livery car services are getting help from some friends in high places.

After years of being effectively locked out of some of Florida’s largest transportation markets, companies like Uber, Ride Command, Sidecar, Lyft and others soon could find themselves in the driver’s seat.

That’s if the Florida Legislature approves a pair of bills sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa. The proposed legislation would strip local governments of their ability to regulate “chauffeured limousine” services and place that authority in the hands of the state government.

But don’t be fooled. Brandes’s bill, SB 1618, wouldn’t apply to just limousines per se, but to any nonmetered vehicle with four or more doors, hired in advance. That excludes taxicabs, but applies to a range of other options perfectly suited for companies like Uber — whose Washington, D.C., office on Monday will receive a visit from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Based in San Francisco, Uber is an online firm that connects drivers and passengers through a digital app, or smart phone application.

Once selected, drivers arrive by tracking a rider’s cell phone signal. Passengers also can follow drivers’ locations on their mobile devices. Customers choose from economy cars, SUVs or even luxury vehicles. Pricing can be predetermined and fares split among multiple riders.

“Uber is magic, you press a button and you get a car,” Justin Kintz, Uber’s public policy manager, told Watchdog.org.

The firm doesn’t directly employ any drivers or own any cars, but partners with licensed local drivers looking for more business. For that, the company takes a 20 percent cut for “lead generation.”

It’s a good deal for drivers, Kintz told Watchdog.org. A license and the right vehicle equates to a well-paying job, with some in some large cities making up to $100,000 a year, he said. A Craigslist ad touts $30 an hour for qualified drivers in Tampa.

Facilitating faster, cheaper services along with the potential for more jobs with higher pay, hasn’t exactly been met with a welcome mat. Uber may have a foothold in 85 different markets, but not so much in the Sunshine State.

“Uber is only live in Jacksonville right now,” Kintz said. “We’d love to be in Miami, Tampa and Orlando and a lot of other markets, but we’re unable to because they’re making it impossible for our business model to work.”

In January, political brinksmanship at the Miami-Dade County Commission killed an attempt to strike several seemingly arbitrary restrictions against digital transportation companies.

Miami-Dade is Florida’s most populous county, with a large tourism industry to boot, but local regulations cap limousine and “black-car” licenses at 625.

“Clearly, the cap was put in place to benefit the folks who are already in the market and who own the licenses,” Kintz said.

Miami-Dade also requires a minimum fare of $70 regardless the travel distance, and further requires a one-hour wait time from the moment a reservation is made to when a passenger can ride in a licensed vehicle.

Orlando has a $35 minimum fare and one-hour wait time. Tampa has a $50 minimum fare, which was instituted in 2012 by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

For good measure, Brandes filed an amendment Wednesday to an unrelated agricultural bill that would put special districts, such as HCPTC, on the wrong side of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act for “restricting the right of the public to freely bargain for lawful livery transit services.”

Entrenched transportation interests aren’t going down without a fight.

Mears Transportation Group, a large Orlando-based firm founded in 1939, commissioned a poll in February, with the support of the Florida Taxicab Association, and found 78 percent of Floridians believe Uber should be regulated like taxis and other transportation providers.

The poll surveyed 3,024 Floridians in four metropolitan areas Jan. 7-Feb.13, with a 1.8 percent margin of error.

Mears further reported that Uber would underserve minority communities, the elderly and low-income residents.

But Uber is singing a different tune. “When you look at these types of regulations, there’s no benefit to consumers. They only benefit incumbent players,” Kintz said.

State House and Senate hearings will be held next week at the Capitol.

Contact William Patrick at [email protected] 

Published with permission by Watchdog.org

 

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