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Transportation panel keeps taxi number metered

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000

There is no legal limit on the number of grocery stores.

If you decide to open a restaurant, nobody is going to say: "Sorry, you can't. We've met our quota."

You are free to start your own long-distance phone company, your own Internet service, your own newspaper.

But if you desire to provide taxicab service within the borders of Hillsborough County, Florida

Well, that is not entirely up to you.

The number of taxicabs allowed in Hillsborough -- 484, to be exact -- is set by the government.

Hillsborough is unique among Florida's 67 counties in the way it regulates taxicabs. It is done through the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. It enforces a limit: one taxi for each 2,000 residents.

At the moment, there are only 12 unused licenses, and two companies are competing for them. The two biggest existing companies, Yellow Cab and United Cab, are fighting them.

A logical question is:

Why is there a government agency that sets the number of taxicabs? In many places, like Pinellas and the rest of the Suncoast, it's wide open.

If there were wide-open competition, wouldn't prices drop, and taxi companies keep improving service?

"That's an ongoing debate," Gregory Cox said agreeably. He is the executive director of the Public Transportation Commission. He is 45, and in the job for about a year after retiring from the Army. Cox has pretty good transportation experience -- he ran the port operation over in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm.

If you think you've heard of the commission before, maybe it's because of the scandal about it giving a sweetheart deal to a Tampa City Council member to get into the ambulance business, which the board also regulates. That happened before Cox took over. From what I hear, the guy is a breath of fresh air.

To my surprise, Cox admitted up front that this system protects existing taxi companies. Controlling upstart, price-slashing competitors is a necessary evil, he said: "If we can't guarantee the industries that they aren't going to be raked from the bottom, they won't be able to serve the public as well."

Under this theory, taxi companies invest in equipment, training, insurance and upkeep, but then lose business to any upstart who slaps a sign on a jalopy. Inevitably, the overall level of service declines. Cox said several cities have tried deregulation, then gone back.

The commission conducts annual safety inspections on taxicabs, as well as surprise field checks. Any cab in violation is pulled off the street. Taxicab inspectors even have arrest power.

Cox said much of the time, this isn't exactly a free-market situation in the first place. The consumer is completely at the mercy of the situation at hand.

"You step out of the airport, and a taxi pulls up," Cox said. In that moment, do you have time to inquire as to the driver's safety record? Do you have time to check out the cab? Of course not.

"You get in whatever shows up," he said. "And that's how it's done around the world."

Unlicensed limo services also are a problem, Cox said. Each spring, he writes a letter to every high school principal, warning students about choosing the right limo service on prom night. Last year, his inspectors caught an unlicensed operator on prom night. He was a registered sexual predator.

I told Cox that my own prejudice was in favor of competition. Sure, regulate safety. Make 'em all get insurance. Set uniform rates, if you want, so that upstarts can't undercut the established guys. But let the free market decide how many taxis are out there.

"You're not alone," Cox answered. "And I'm sure if the regulation stopped, the world wouldn't come to an end. But I can tell you from my daily experience, from seeing the vehicles and the people we deal with, that we're doing some good."

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