Uber fight over transportation services

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An uber-fight has erupted in the Capitol involving Ashton Kutcher, black cars and carpetbaggers.

The skirmish between San Francisco-based Uber Technologies --- the smart phone app that hooks up cars and riders --- and the Florida Taxicab Association is a classic turf battle with a stylish, high-tech twist.

Uber basically wants to do away with minimum fares for limousine services, which range from $50 in Tampa Bay to $125 in Miami, and get rid of other local regulations like minimum wait times --- one hour in Miami --- and caps on limousine licenses that the company says hurt consumers.

Uber brought its battle to the Capitol after being thwarted in Miami-Dade County and Hillsborough County, where local officials have refused to rewrite rules regulating taxis and limousines to make it easier --- and more lucrative --- for Uber to get "black cars" rolling. The only city in Florida where Uber is now operating is Jacksonville, which changed its regulations to accommodate the company last fall.

Local officials have "chosen to keep up the status quo, which is broken," said Justin Kintz, manager of public policy for Uber in the Americas.

"What it boils down to is what you have in Orlando, in Hillsborough, in Miami, is you have consumers being disadvantaged, and these destinations are becoming less competitive as travel destinations while the rest of the world embraces innovation and embraces consumer choice," Kintz said. "So if you're the state Legislature or you're the state government, how do you not look at what's happening in your biggest municipalities and how do you not care about that outcry from the public?"

Uber enlisted the help of some of Tallahassee's most influential lobbyists, including Jennifer Green, Ron Pierce, former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Al Cardenas and Marty Fiorentino. And the company, which operates in more than 400 cities in 35 countries, recently joined Associated Industries of Florida.

Uber's other fans include U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who, in a speech delivered at Uber's Washington, D.C., headquarters last week, blamed the company's woes in his Miami hometown on "outdated regulations that limit consumer choice and protect existing monopolies."

Uber this week sent e-mails to users urging them to sign a petition to "Move Florida Forward" and to tell lawmakers to "stand up for innovation, not special interests" by supporting two troubled bills that would take away local control of taxicabs and limousines. Within days, more than 10,000 individuals signed the on-line petitions.

But Uber allies didn't help their cause by showing Senate Transportation Committee members a clip of the actor Kutcher, an Uber investor, lambasting Miami-Dade regulations.

"Basically it's like mafioso, like village mentality of like we're not going to let the new guy in. Like in Miami," Kutcher told late night host Jimmy Kimmel in February.

Uber may have suffered another setback on Thursday after Senate Transportation Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, failed to move forward a pared-down version of his original plan that would have banned local governments from establishing rules and regulations --- including minimum rates and wait times --- regarding limos and taxis.

Brandes's stripped-down version of the bill would bar only "special districts" from restricting "the use of chauffeured limousines for hire using digital transportation request services by requiring a minimum wait time, requiring a minimum fare" or limiting the number of permits issued to operate limos. Brandes said Thursday he will hold another meeting next week to hear the bill, but the proposal is in jeopardy as the clock on the 2014 session winds down.

"Time marches on. And we must allow for innovation to benefit Floridians. I believe this will allow for dynamic new transportation options to be offered in Florida," Brandes said Thursday at an overflowing meeting room packed with lobbyists and drivers on both sides of the issue.

Rob Searcy, president of Gulf Coast Transport in Tampa, spoke against the proposal.

"This is just a spoiled-brat big corporation that does not want to play by the rules that are already there," Searcy said.

Brandes' revised plan would apply only to the Public Transportation Commission --- the board that oversees taxicabs, limousines and tow trucks --- in Hillsborough County. The Hillsborough County delegation refused to adopt a proposal put forth as a local bill by Brandes and Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, that would have done away with the Public Transportation Commission.

The Uber-friendly legislation is up against powerful coalition that includes Mears Transportation, the company that provides transportation services at Disney properties; the Florida Taxicab Association; and counties and cities that don't want their authority subjugated to the state.

The Florida Taxicab Association has come out fighting, issuing press releases blasting Uber for "rating" riders, which could allow drivers to discriminate against passengers. The association is also painting Uber as an elitist business that caters to wealthy riders who can afford smart phones and have credit cards, required to set up a Uber account.

Decades ago, taxis and limousines were regulated by the state Public Service Commission. Lawmakers did away with that because local governments know more about what residents, travelers and businesses need, said Ron Book, a lobbyist representing the Florida Taxicab Association and a number of counties and cities.

Restricting the bill to Hillsborough County isn't a solution, Book said.

"There are lots of transportation companies in this state, big ones and small ones and middle-sized ones. There are lots of local governments that don't want their local regulations preempted by an out-of-state, carpetbagging company to come here and superimpose California on Florida. I don't think that's a good idea," he said.

Public Transportation Commission Chairman Victor Crist, a former state legislator who also serves on the Hillsborough County Commission, acknowledged that the transportation board has a troubled past but insists that it is turning itself around.

Taxicabs and limousines are regulated differently, Crist pointed out. Limos are considered a luxury service and have looser rules about where and when they can operate. Taxis are required to offer 24/7 services throughout the county at set, posted rates.

Uber wants to have it both ways, Crist said, by offering on-demand services like taxis using negotiable rates like limos. Crist said that could hurt consumers and pointed to recent reports accusing Uber of "price-surging," or hiking rates up to nine times when demand is high.

And Crist blasted Brandes and Grant for "disrespecting" the local delegation and their constituents.

"It's a heck of a thing that you couldn't get your local legislators to sign off on this and now you're trying to back-door it through the process using friends in Tallahassee," Crist told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview.

But Brandes said he wants to do away with "arcane regulatory burdens … meant to protect (the) taxi market from competition."

More and more business travelers expect to be able to use Uber --- operating only in Jacksonville right now --- or similar apps when they arrive at airports in Florida, Brandes said.

"This is the future of transportation," he said. "Whether it happens this year or in a subsequent year, I think ultimately, for a tourist economy like Florida to not offer these services, for a business economy like Tampa, Orlando and Miami are, to not offer these services makes us look like a political backwater."