(Ari Bargil) – Transportation consumers in Tampa Bay, Fla., are being taken for a ride in more ways than one. That’s because the county’s transportation sanctioning authority, the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC), demands that all limousine rides, no matter how short, cost no less than $50. That’s right. In the name of consumer protection, the PTC actually forces drivers and entrepreneurs to charge more than they would like.
By forcing limousines to charge a minimum of $50, drivers are often forced to turn down would-be customers even if they would otherwise like to charge less. The benefit, naturally, then falls to the very taxi companies who pushed for the minimum fare rule, because they are the only transportation option available to a cost-conscious consumer refusing to pay $50 for a short limo ride. Believe it or not, the PTC has made it against the law for businesses to give their customers a better deal.
Despite the PTC’s stated mission to protect consumers, the minimum fare rule does nothing of the sort. Instead, rules like this only serve to stifle innovation, increase costs and protect a handful of well-connected industry insiders from competition. But the government should not be picking winners and losers in the marketplace; that right belongs to consumers. The citizens of the Tampa Bay area ought to be able to decide what mode of transportation suits them best, without the unsolicited encouragement of the government to choose one over another.
Corporate cronyism—under the guise of consumer protection—is sadly not a new phenomenon for Hillsborough County’s transportation entrepreneurs. Created by special law in the Florida Legislature over two decades ago, the PTC remains the only entity of its kind in the entire state. And ever since, it has gained a reputation as a shill for large taxi and limo companies, helping to crush competition by suppressing newer and smaller businesses. A former director is in federal prison on charges of public corruption, and just last week another director was forced to resign in light of yet another ethics scandal. As the PTC’s own track record indicates, such price fixing rules transform the marketplace into a political battlefield, where lobbying and special favors replace hard work and customer service as the keys to building a successful business.
But the PTC’s reign of forced market stratification might be finally coming to an end. That’s because the PTC’s minimum fare rule is finally being understood for exactly what it is: a clear violation of the Florida Constitution, which protects consumers’ right to freely bargain and the right of entrepreneurs to earn an honest living. And just last week, a limousine company and two consumers, collectively fed up with being fleeced by the PTC, joined with the Institute for Justice to file suit in Florida to vindicate those rights. (The Institute for Justice has a long history of beating back bad government restrictions on entrepreneurs, including its successful lawsuit opening the Las Vegas limousine market.)
The PTC’s minimum fare rule has unfairly hurt some of Tampa Bay’s most hard working end enterprising entrepreneurs. And it has unconstitutionally inserted itself into transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers. But consumers need to be protected from affordable pricing about as much as they need the government to protect them from pillows that are too soft. Thankfully, the route to a freer transportation market in Tampa Bay doesn’t require a GPS: The directions are written clearly into the Florida Constitution; and if you get to the point where you spot mandatory minimum fares, you know you’ve gone too far.
(Ari Bargil is an attorney with the Institute of Justice. For more information, visit www.ij.org)