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Florida Is Caught in the Middle of Uber-Taxi War

Although technically illegal, Uber drivers have dropped off and picked up passengers at Florida airports — and many taxi companies and shuttle services are sick of it.

by Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach / November 5, 2015
Taxis wait to serve travelers at Miami International Airport. Jorg Hackemann / Shutterstock.com

(TNS) -- Uber drivers get no love from the shuttle queue outside Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

“I’d just like to shoot them,” said David Cole, who at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday had been waiting eight hours for his first fare of the day. “They sneak in here and get people all the time.”

Airport shuttle services and cab companies alike have come to despise Uber and the less-familiar Lyft, Internet-powered transportation services that allow drivers to hook up with passengers using a phone app.

Shuttle drivers pay heavily for an airport permit and additional insurance, Cole said.

They submit to background checks, follow airport rules requiring them to cool their heels in long lines, even abide by dress codes, only to have an Uber driver swoop in, illegally, and snatch a potential customer.

“They take the fares we sit here and work hard for,” said Wendy Pellicciotti, who after six hours on a slow Tuesday had worked her way up to third in the 12-deep formation of shuttle vans.

The traditional transportation services question legislation recently filed by state Rep. Matt Gaetz that would give the state regulatory authority over companies like Uber and Lyft.

Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, proposes the move to streamline regulation and prevent the headaches the traditional services face.

He also wants to keep local government out of the regulatory mix.

Gaetz said he is leery of local governments “in bed with the taxi industry” using heavy-handed regulation to try to squeeze the Internet upstarts out of business.

“I think Florida should be an inviting place to new technologies that grow the economy and encourage competition,” Gaetz said. “That’s what we should do as free market conservatives, create an environment for business growth.”

Karen Locklear, the general manager for Yellow Taxi in Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola, said she doesn’t understand why the conservative Gaetz, as a proponent for smaller government, wants to increase regulation.

“It should be up to each city and county, dealing with these people,” she said.

Implying that local government and the taxi industry in Florida are somehow working in collusion against Uber and Lyft is ridiculous, Locklear said.

“We’re not New York, with million-dollar medallions,” she said. “We’re mostly mom and pop.”

Before Gaetz’s legislation is ever considered in Tallahassee, Okaloosa County is likely to have signed a contract with Uber that will legalize the company’s presence at the county airport.

The contract will require Uber drivers to submit to background checks, meet insurance requirements and submit to some type of permitting. Those are all things that would be required under Gaetz’s legislation as well.

Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Nathan Boyles said it’s too early to know what form Gaetz’s legislation will ultimately take or how far it will get.

It is therefore also too early to tell whether the state will pass something capable of adversely impacting any agreement the county has reached with Uber, he said.

“I’ve learned not to spend too much time worrying about legislation that’s still in committee,” Boyles said. “When something appears to be gaining traction, then I’ll tune in and pay attention.”

Gaetz is hopeful the bill he’s proposing will actually encourage steps to ease the regulations presently in place for taxi companies and shuttle services.

Tracy Stage, the interim director of the Okaloosa County Airports Department, said the contract being negotiated with Uber, will “level the playing field” between Uber and the shuttle services.

“We’re not going to discriminate. That’s our number one goal,” he said. “Competition is good at the end of the day. It lowers the cost for passengers, the customer.”

A proposed county contract with Uber could come before the Okaloosa Board of Commissioners as soon as mid-December, Stage said.

©2015 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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