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Regulatory adoption of Uber could quickly reach a tipping point in the U.S. where destinations would rather shake the status quo than be known as outdated and backwards among tourists and business travelers.

Miami-Dade County commissioners signaled Tuesday they are prepared to overhaul regulations that govern the powerful taxi and town-car industries, which they described as dysfunctional and behind the times.

“It has taken us too long to get to where we are today,” Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said.

Just how far they are willing to go, however, remains to be seen.

Most commissioners said they intend to support legislation that at any other time would have been the focus of attention: requiring most or all cabs to provide credit-card payment machines.

But there’s an even more contentious proposal on the commission’s plate: deregulating the town-car industry to allow certain mobile technology companies that dispatch drivers to passengers, such as San Francisco startup Uber, to break into the South Florida market.

A majority of commissioners seemed to favor that legislation as well, but their support was far more tentative, tempered by questions and suggestions for improvement before it comes before commissioners for a vote later this year.

Commissioner Dennis Moss, who spearheaded the last revamp of taxi regulations in 1998, said he has qualms about doing away with limits on the number of black sedans allowed to offer their services in the county, as proposed in the measure sponsored by Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.

“We’re not New York, and we’re not D.C.,” Moss said. “Maybe an unlimited open market doesn’t work here.”

In contrast, the board was so enthusiastic about Commissioner Juan C. Zapata’s proposal to require taxis that pick up passengers at PortMiami and Miami International Airport to provide credit-card machines that several commissioners urged him to expand his measure to all cabs — as long as neither cab drivers nor passengers bear the brunt of the processing costs.

The commission also seemed receptive to Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz’s plan promoting an “ambassador” cab decal for airport and seaport taxis, as proposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Aviation Director Emilio Gonzalez. That program would go beyond requiring credit-card machines and also equip taxis with SunPass transponders and require drivers to provide more courteous service.

But it was the proposed town-car deregulation that was at the center of Tuesday’s meeting, a chance for commissioners to hear from the public and discuss several related pieces of legislation without having to make any decisions yet. They spent much of their time emphasizing poor work conditions for taxi drivers, citing that as a key reason for backing regulatory reforms.

The daylong meeting drew throngs of lobbyists, executives and taxi and town-car drivers to County Hall, where an overflow was accommodated outside the commission chambers. Inside, much of the audience was visibly split, with one group opposing town-car deregulation wearing yellow T-shirts and another supporting it wearing black ones.

In addition to allowing an unlimited number of drivers to obtain town-car permits, Edmonson’s proposal would eliminate requirements that town-car rides be pre-arranged at least an hour in advance and that fares be far higher than those charged by taxis.

Those changes would allow Uber and its competitors to set up shop in Miami-Dade. Uber does not hire its own drivers or own its own cars; instead, it provides a smartphone app to connect partner drivers to would-be passengers willing to pay for a car service more expensive than a taxi in exchange for the convenience of requesting it from their cell phones.

“This legislation is not about one particular company. This is about consumer service,” said Edmonson, whose proposal is backed by the county tourism board and hotels association. “There should never be the perception that we attack a new business or revise the existing rules to protect an incumbent business.”

A slew of taxi drivers and a few town-car drivers urged commissioners to side with Edmonson, giving cabbies a chance to jump to the town-car industry — leaving behind taxi companies they said gouges drivers — and existing town-car drivers an opportunity to grow their small businesses.

Uber also flew in drivers who use the app in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Atlanta to laud the company.

Jack Smith of Washington, D.C., said he was raised in Miami Gardens but could not have started his own car-service firm unless he moved.

“I wanted to start a business here before I moved to Virginia, but because of the medallion, I couldn’t,” he said, referring to the pricey taxi medallions that limit the number of cabs that can operate in Miami-Dade County.

The value of those 2,121 medallions — worth about $325,000 each, the county said Tuesday in an updated estimate — could plummet under competition from a deregulated town-car industry, medallion owners and other drivers argued. They accused commissioners of planning to change the rules in the middle of the business game.

That would be “un-American,” taxi driver Geoffrey Radlein said.

“You will destroy that market,” said Kevin Michaels, who has a car-service business he said could be driven to the ground by a deregulated market. “Please think it through.”

When Commissioners Sally Heyman and Jean Monestime asked who would protect the existing taxi and car-service businesses, Gimenez, a proponent of Edmonson’s legislation, was clear: No one.

“Where’s the protection for the restaurants that abide by all the rules and have health requirements by the state? How come we don’t protect them from more restaurants?” he said. “Who’s not being protected is the consumer.”

Opponents of Edmonson’s proposal cited several other apps, such as Hailo, that would allow passengers to request taxi drivers using their cell phones without having to make any changes to the county’s regulatory system.

But most commissioners said they want business travelers and tourists to have the same high-end service in Miami-Dade than they do in other big cities around the world.

“When a system is in such disarray, I think if we want to bring real change, we have to do it once and not do it piecemeal,” Monestime said. “This is San industry that truly needs real reform.”

(c)2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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Tags: hailo, miami, uber

Photo Credit: A taxi drives down Ocean Drive in Miami, Florida. iJammin / Flickr