America's free-market system is well and fine unless it hurts the bottom line of Hillsborough County's taxicab industry. That's the guiding ethos of the Public Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough. The Legislature should disband the agency and hand its narrow task to county government.
The chauffeur service RideCommand is trying to bring a service to Hillsborough that a similar company tried to and failed because of a PTC rule that artificially limits competition for the benefit of the cab industry. As the Tampa Bay Times' Susan Thurston reported last week, RideCommand lets customers use a mobile phone app to order a ride right away, or to put future rides out to bid to get the lowest price. But premium car services, which operate limousines and high-end SUVs and sedans, are prohibited from soliciting walkup customers on the street. The PTC requires they charge a $50 minimum fare, even for short distances, which serves only to protect the taxis.
The PTC says it is trying to separate everyday taxi service from the luxury providers, but that makes no sense. The private car services are subject to the same regulatory oversight as the taxis — the same inspections to ensure the vehicles are safe, the same background checks on the drivers. The difference is that the taxicabs benefit from a publicly imposed price support that gives the taxicabs a $50 jump on any business. The rule was suggested by the industry (no shock there). And PTC staff oppose the mobile phone service on the ridiculous notion that it disenfranchises poor people who need a hired ride but lack a smartphone.
The price-fixing policy is wrong, bad for consumers and business and counterproductive in terms of what customers are looking for today when it comes to value and convenience. It also undermines the great need to get the taxicab operators to improve their levels of service. If clients want to hire RideCommand, they should be able to under the terms the company offers, not beholden to the arbitrary rules the PTC imposes that have nothing to do with safety.
The commission was created by a special legislative act, and its stand-alone authority to regulate for-hire vehicles in the county is the only one of its kind in the state. But the PTC does nothing special; dissolving the agency and moving its handful of staff under county government would be easy and make the operation more efficient and accountable. The inspections would go on, but the move would bring greater public scrutiny to a pricing and regulatory scheme that fosters an uneven playing field. The bill to disband the commission should be a priority of Hillsborough's delegation for next year's legislative session.
The chauffeur service RideCommand has motored into the Tampa Bay area in hopes of picking up where a similar company called Uber left off. • RideCommand lets customers use a mobile phone app to order a ride right away for a predetermined price or put future rides out to bid to get the lowest price possible. • President and founder Al Stapleton developed the concept on the belief that people should be in the driver's seat, even if they are sitting in the back of a Lincoln Town Car. "We're giving consumers the power to choose," he said.
"We think people can ride for less if they're in charge."
Based in Annapolis, Md., the company seeks to build off the success of Uber, a popular private car service that also works through a smartphone application. Based in San Francisco, Uber came to Tampa last summer for the Republican National Convention but left soon after because of a Hillsborough County-mandated $50 fare minimum on limos and other premium cars.
While the requirement poses a challenge, Stapleton thinks he can succeed through long-distance trips and customers willing to pay more for clean, upscale vehicles and courteous drivers. He's targeting trips from Tampa International Airport to the beaches, as well as bachelorette parties and other special events needing a premium car for a few hours. He also hopes pressure from customers could eventually persuade the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission to reduce or eliminate the fare minimum — an effort that proved futile for Uber.
"We feel like the market should determine the price, not the government," said Stapleton, who is funding the company himself.
Originally called Car Fare Compare, RideCommand has partnered with about 30 licensed luxury-car drivers on the county's approved list of providers. Stapleton met Moty Bernstein, a premium-car operator in Tampa and Philadelphia, at a trade show and decided to pilot the service in Tampa, a sprawling region with limited mass transit.
Bernstein said RideCommand could boost business for premium vehicle drivers, who are legally prohibited from soliciting clients on the street and often sit idle. While not a fan of the fare minimum, he estimates any limo trip beyond about a 5-mile radius exceeds $50. Going from the airport to the Loews Don CeSar Hotel in St. Pete Beach, for example, costs about $75.
"There's a major level of hunger in the market," said Bernstein, who offered rides through Uber during the RNC. "There's a lot of what we call 'dead weight,' meaning you have nothing sitting in the back."
Stapleton, 64, came up with the idea after having a bad experience trying to order a premium car for a two-hour trip while in Minnesota. After two hours of calling companies and getting different prices, he got stranded at the airport and had to flag down a cab.
In the works for about a year, the RideCommand app launched Wednesday for iPhones and should be available for Androids later this month. Customers will also be able to order rides through the website ridecommand.com. If successful, the service could expand to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Miami.
Retired from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Stapleton thinks RideCommand improves upon Uber and other companies that allow riders to track, book and pay for car services using their smartphones. RideCommand's fares don't change during the ride if there's traffic or a delay, and gratuity isn't built into the price. It charges drivers a 12 percent commission — less than most competitors — and lets customers take bids for any trip scheduled three or more hours in advance. If you need a car sooner than that, you pay a fixed price.
Uber officials say succeeding in the Tampa area won't be easy. Rachel Holt, Uber's East Coast regional manager, said the company did "fantastic" during the convention but left largely because of the "unprecedented'' $50 fare minimum. None of Uber's nearly 20 other markets nationwide has a similar provision.
"We would love to be in Tampa permanently, but when you have a minimum fare of $50, I don't believe I can develop a service that's in the best interest of riders or drivers," she said.
Hillsborough adopted the fare minimum several years ago as a way to separate taxicabs from limos and other luxury rides, said Public Transportation Commission chief inspector Mario Tamargo. Any reduction or change would have to be approved by the seven-member commission of city and county elected officials.
That isn't likely to happen any time soon. Rob Searcy, president of Gulf Coast Transportation/United Cab, one of the area's largest taxi companies, said he opposes changing the fare minimum, especially if it helps a company seeking to take away some of the affluent business that pays with a credit card.
"I don't know why anyone would want to change the rules for someone who is not a player," he said. "They want to skim off the cream of the business without any effort."
He argues companies like Uber, which has struggled to meet regulatory approval in some cities, don't generate new business for car companies. They just poach existing rides. He also doesn't understand the appeal of using a phone app over calling a live dispatcher.
But Stapleton said mobile technology is here to stay and the transportation industry needs to adjust regulations to accommodate concepts aimed at helping consumers. In the end, he hopes RideCommand changes people's behavior and encourages them to think beyond using their car as the only way to get around.