Florida may move forward on TNC regs

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Florida lawmakers this month filed legislation in both houses of the Legislature to regulate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.  The two companion bills seek to establish statewide guidelines, but differ greatly on particulars.

The Senate version — S.B. 1326, filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg — establishes statewide requirements, including background checks, minimum insurance coverage and a ban on drivers with three or more moving violations or a reckless driving conviction in the past three years, as well as a ban on drivers convicted of a DUI within the past seven years or other felony convictions.

The House version — H.B. 816, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar — establishes similar requirements to those in the Senate bill, but also preempts and thus nullifies local government regulations. Additionally, Gaetz’s bill requires TNCs to pay a $5,000 annual permit fee; post fare and insurance information on their websites; implement a zero-tolerance policy on drug and alcohol abuse by their drivers; and suspend drivers accused of wrongdoing until an investigation is completed.

Although the bills are a long way from conforming to one another, they are poised to ignite a much-needed debate on what role the state should play, if any, in regulating this emerging market.

TNCs currently operate in several cities throughout the state, but they have increasingly been targeted by local governments.  The City of Orlando, for example, initially wanted to force TNCs to charge more than taxis as a condition to legally operate in the city, among other requirements. Ultimately, Orlando elected to force them to charge the same rates.  In December, Hillsborough County slammed TNCs with a cease-and-desist order, and when that failed to get them off the streets, they joined other cities — including Miami and Las Vegas — in pursuing injunctive relief against them in court.

TNCs and their supporters argue that many of these government actions are simply meant to protect the taxi cab industry.  Those on the opposite side, who support these types of regulations or outright bans, argue that it is a public safety issue because TNCs may not have adequate insurance, consumer protections or other safeguards.

It is not unreasonable for the state to set minimum standards and regulations aimed at TNCs, who have agreed to similar rules in other jurisdictions. The debate, however, will likely focus on the degree to which the state should preempt local government regulations.

Indeed, local governments can and should regulate TNCs to ensure public safety, especially in the absence of statewide regulation. However, it appears that some have used their regulatory authority to protect one industry to the detriment of another.  As I wrote recently: requiring companies to charge more than their competitors—or even dictating what they should charge to begin with—as a condition to conduct business is utterly un-American.  If Florida is “Open for Business,” as Gov. Rick Scott always says, price controls or other regulations so onerous or expensive that they purposely put certain industry players at a disadvantage or out of business altogether should not be allowed to stand. Therefore, lawmakers should at least explore whether to preempt such destructive, protectionist regulations.

Regardless, local governments, the taxi cab industry and other stakeholders should definitely be at the table and part of the conversation as these bills move through the process. Whatever regulations are eventually adopted at the state level should indeed level the playing field, so that everyone can compete safely and fairly. Current regulations that put traditional taxi cabs at a disadvantage, for example, should be revisited.

Ultimately, TNCs can and should be allowed to participate and become part of the transportation ecosystem.  As in every other industry, competition would increase quality, choice and innovation, and in this case, another transportation-on-demand option increases public safety by reducing drunken driving.

As the tourism capital of the world, Florida has a unique opportunity to be a model in transportation innovation.

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