SPECIAL REPORT: Wrong Turns Around Tampa Bay

Posted on August 12, 2009 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL — Licensing of limousine services vary among states, with some lacking any license requirements while others enforce cumbersome and sometimes absurd laws that interfere with operators’ ability to provide consistent, legal service across multiple counties and cities in one region.

One hotspot for regulatory conflict that serves as a national case study on the issue of conflicting and crippling regulations is the Tampa Bay metro region, where limousine/livery activity in the most populated areas are governed by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (HCPTC).

This independent “special district” created by a special act of the Florida Legislature seems to make up rules defining a van, a limousine, how old the vehicle can be, and what type of service can be provided.

The rules appear arbitrary and illogical to many operators, creating definitions that conflict with federal DOT laws. Such inconsistencies have led one Florida- based chauffeured transportation operator to find legal counsel and seek relief through a federal lawsuit against the HCPTC at a cost funded solely by the operator. So far, no other organization, including the NLA or the Florida Limousine Association, has helped in the effort.

A similar situation was diffused in California not too long ago.

In 2004, California Assemblyman Mark Leno introduced State Assembly Bill 2591. This bill would have allowed counties and city municipalities to enact their own laws on the regulation of limousines within their jurisdiction. The results would have been devastating to California operators.

In theory, any local government body in the state could have implemented a permitting program for a fee, required independent mechanical inspections for a fee, and enacted special licensing requirements for chauffeurs. This would have pre-empted the current single licensing authority, The California Public Utilities Commission. California operators enjoy the right to travel anywhere in the state under its authority. Some airports regulate and tax livery operations for use of their airport, but there are only a handful of major airports in California as compared to the number of cities and counties. A livery vehicle windshield could have been adorned with 58 county decals.

Fortunately, California has the powerful Greater California Livery Association (GCLA) who stepped in with a high powered lobbyist and stopped the bill.

Unfortunately, this situation did happen in Florida in the 1980s as Florida decentralized motor carrier operations and transferred the licensing and management to the county level just as had been proposed in California.

This was the beginning of problems for Gunny’s Limousine Service of Spring Hill, Fla., founded in 2002 and owned by Walter G. “Gunny” Kozak. Except that Kozak wasn’t in business yet so it had not affected him — yet.

The original intention of the HCPTC was to regulate public transportation —.specifically, taxi cabs operating within the several municipalities of Hillsborough County. The limousine industry as it exists today had not yet emerged, so there was no real need to address limousine issues. At some point, the HCPTC, solely funded by licensing fees and fines collected, decided that it needed to add to their till by having its special law rewritten to bring under their control the Florida ground transportation industry servicing the regional interstate hubs in Tampa.

In 2001, under Senate House Bill 777, a van was defined as “any motor-driven vehicle with a capacity of 10 to 15 passengers, including the driver, for the transportation of for-hire passengers, which operates within the county but does not include sight-seeing cars and buses, streetcars, motor buses operated pursuant to franchise or courtesy vans, and limousines not for hire.”

The bill further defined the purpose of the HCPTC as an agency to “regulate the operation of public vehicles upon the public highways of Hillsborough County and its municipalities. The commission has exclusive jurisdiction in the exercise of the authority provided by this act, and no other public entity within the county may require a person to pay a fee for the privileges granted by this act and any rules adopted in accordance with this act. Nothing in this act shall be construed so as to limit or affect the provisions of chapter 205, Florida Statutes.”

On a technicality, none of this should really matter to Kozak because Gunny’s is located two counties away from Hillsborough in Hernando County, which has no laws governing livery services except to require a business license. He obtained that before starting his business. He decided the best fleet mix would be a Town Car, a 7-passenger mini-vanm and a 15-passenger Ford Clubwagon. This would allow him to serve a couple needing a ride to the airport, two couples and luggage in a mini-van, or a larger group in the big van. It was the perfect fleet for an area where most of the population are elderly citizens living on fixed incomes and not looking for high-end luxury service. They simply want an economical ride to the Tampa airport some 50 miles away in Hillsborough County. Kozak spent nearly a decade working for industry icon Bill Goerl at Clique Limousine. They ran all kinds of vehicles and never had he heard any issue over whether a van was a van by any regulatory authority.

Now, the HCPTC tells him that his 7-passenger van is not a van because it does not meet its definition of a van. They also told him that his 1997 Town Car was too old so it could not be licensed as a vehicle for public hire. The company name at the time was Gunny’s Limousine Service and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a limousine as: 1) A large luxurious often chauffeur-driven sedan that usually has a glass partition separating the driver's seat from the passenger compartment; 2) A large vehicle for transporting passengers to and from an airport.

Is a 7-passenger van not a large vehicle?

Yet also contained in the HCPTC’s laws is the Florida Legislature’s definition: “Limousine — means any motor vehicle for hire not equipped with a taximeter, with a capacity for 15 passengers or less, including the driver.” In this wording, it could be construed that a 7-passenger van operated by a limousine service is a limousine. It seats less than 15 passengers and it certainly is a “motor vehicle” that does not have a taximeter so it seems to meet the legal definition of the HCPTC. Still, Kozak has been told it does not qualify for permitting.

Under Florida General Law, a bus is defined as “any motor vehicle designed to carry more than 10 passengers and any vehicle, other than a taxicab, designed and used to transport persons for compensation.

Using this logic, combined with Title 49 ss4501 (a)(1)(C) U.S.C. which provides an expressed preemption restricting states or local jurisdictions from enacting any law or rules requiring motor carriers to obtain authority to provide charter bus transportation in addition to a Florida preemption prohibiting local agencies from imposing economic regulation upon buses solely engaged in intercounty transportation, Gunny’s Limousine Service became Gunny’s Intrastate Travel & Tours, a charter and tour company.

From a legal standpoint, Gunny’s Intrastate Travel & Tours was now a seller of travel licensed by the State of Florida. He was engaged in charter operations and protected by federal law that prohibits states from interfering in charter bus operations. Kozak would learn along the way just how serious the HCPTC was about enforcing its laws, although he was only incidentally passing through their county in the delivery of services to his passengers and not actually based within their county. In October 2003, HCPTC authorities impounded Kozak’s vehicle, handcuffed him, and took him to jail while his Hernando County passenger who had hired him for the roundtrip airport transfer watched. Charges requested by the HCPTC against Kozak were rejected for prosecution by the Hillsborough County District Attorney’s Office.

According to the HCPTC website, it has jurisdiction over any “for hire public vehicle” and that means any motor vehicle in the county transporting persons for compensation, although the actual cash transaction or compensation takes place in Hernando County. The HCPTC apparently wants to have exclusive control over any public for hire vehicle crossing into their county.

In another display of power by the HCPTC, although Gunny’s is located in another county, Kozak must apply for a “Need and Necessity” permit with a non-refundable $5,000 application fee per certificate. That fee must be accompanied by a written argument stating why an operator believes another livery service is needed and how they plan to correct the deficiency they claim and hope the hearing officer buys it. This hearing officer cost’s the applicant another $600 non-refundable fee, plus if approved, $250 vehicle permit fees of which none grants access to the airport or cruise ship terminals which are separate licensing fees.

Any current permit holder can view the business plan and oppose the application. If an applicant is denied, they may not reapply for a period of 12 months. However, if the rules are the same one year later, the only way to change them is to take them to court.

Kozak now has a motion for summary judgment pending regarding his complaint against the HCPTC in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division. “This will allow inter-county operators to serve their clients needs from transportation hubs in Tampa,” Kozak said.

LCT will continue to update this situation, which could have far-reaching consequences for chauffeured transportation in the metro Tampa area and throughout Florida.

Case Number: 8:04-cv-01162-JDW-MSS

Sources: Jim Luff, LCT Magazine; U.S. District Court, D.O.T., HCPTC

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