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Cabbies take stand amid high gas prices

Sun reporter

Hailing a cab in Baltimore could get more difficult this summer.

With the average gas price threatening to top $4 a gallon, several Baltimore cabdrivers said yesterday that the steep jump in fuel costs is taking money out of their pockets and forcing them to wait more at taxi stands, where riders come to them, rather than driving around the city and burning fuel while trying to pick up fares.

"You can't drive around all day," said Otisi Okiyi, 50, a Diamond Cab driver, while parked at a taxi stand at the Inner Harbor yesterday. "You spend more than you earn driving around."

When gas prices were under $3, he said, it cost him more than $30 a day to fill up his car. Now he spends about $50. The fuel-cost crunch has turned his usual 12-hour days into 14-hour or 16-hour days, as he spends more time on the road trying to earn the same amount he made a year or two ago.

"Right now, it's a hard situation for us," Okiyi said.

A fare increase might help, but taxi drivers such as Okiyi probably will have to struggle through the summer without any changes. Cab fares start at $1.80 and rise in 20-cent increments based on mileage and waiting time. A 55-cent fuel surcharge is added on top of those rates.

Baltimore's 1,000 cabs are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission, which evaluates twice a year whether industry costs have risen to a point where the charges can be passed on to consumers. LaWanda Edwards, a PSC spokeswoman, said the fuel surcharge has not changed since 2006, when the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.12.

Before that, the fuel surcharge was 15 cents. Any increase in the meter rate or fuel surcharge would not take effect until September, Edwards said.

No emergency surcharge in response to the present fuel price spike has been discussed, Edwards said. But the PSC evaluates the cab industry's rates every January and July, she said. Cab companies have not complained officially about their rising gasoline costs because they expect that they will have an opportunity for an adjustment after the PSC reviews the industry conditions next month, Edwards said.

In recent weeks, taxi companies in many towns and cities across the United States have asked for - and, in many cases, received - permission to increase their prices, either in the form of a fuel surcharge or an increase in meter rates.

Cab companies in Oklahoma City, St. Louis and small cities in Massachusetts and Indiana have obtained increases, according to news reports. And Chicago recently passed its first fuel surcharge for taxis, tacking on up to $1 per ride, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Meanwhile, taxi industries in Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., and Manchester, N.H., are pushing for fare increases or fuel surcharges to help get them through the fuel pinch.

"Nationwide, the industry is asking for rate relief, which means a fare increase," said Alfred LaGasse, president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, a national trade group that represents about 1,000 transportation companies. "It's pretty universal. It's not limited to large cities or small cities."

On Friday, Montgomery County allowed its four cab companies, which operate about 650 cabs, to institute a 90-day emergency fuel surcharge of $1.50 per trip.

The county and its cab companies had been watching the rising cost of gasoline closely over the past month, said Nancy Kutz, a manager in the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation who works with the companies.

"Without a surcharge, the county could find itself without an adequate number of drivers," Kutz said.

To increase the fuel surcharge in Baltimore, Edwards said, the average cost of a gallon of gasoline would have to rise more than 20 percent above the price according to which the present surcharge was calculated two years ago. That would mean the average price of gasoline would have to be about $3.74 per gallon next month for the PSC to approve a rate increase or higher fuel surcharge.

Yesterday, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Baltimore was $3.94 - two pennies less than the state average, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. Last month, the average price for gas in the city was $3.59; a year ago, it was $3.11.

Many of Baltimore's cab drivers operate as independent contractors and lease the vehicles each day from companies that own them. Drivers are typically expected to pay a daily fee - usually $70 to $80 - for the right to drive the cab. They are expected to cover the fuel costs themselves.

Terrell Baker-El, 32, said he tries to bring in about $200 a day while driving for Yellow Taxi, the city's largest owner and operator of cabs. He said he pays $70 a day to lease the cab and averages $60 in daily fuel costs. A few months ago, he was paying about $45 a day for gas.

"Those few dollars really hurt a lot," said Baker-El, who lives in Northeast Baltimore. He now drives 16 to 18 hours a day, and waits at taxi stands more, he said. "I have to. That's the only thing keeping us alive."

He said drivers are more reluctant to pick up fares who want to travel long distances beyond Baltimore, because they will have to drive back without a fare.

Dwight Kimes, regional taxi manager for Yellow and Checker Cab companies, said that until the PSC reviews the market conditions next month, his drivers will have to struggle with higher fuel prices. He said his company's sales staff is working harder to drum up more locations from which drivers can pick up fares.

"We're going to have to weather the storm," said Kimes, who noted that Yellow rolled out Baltimore's first hybrid taxis this year and hopes to put dozens more on the streets by next year. The hybrids - in this case, a Toyota Prius - costs about $24,000, significantly more than the used Ford Crown Victorias that make up the fleet. The Crown Victorias each cost about $8,000. But the savings in fuel are stark: A Crown Victoria typically gets 11 or 12 miles per gallon, while a hybrid can average more than 40.

The cabdrivers are "dying to get this thing," said Joe Matthews, a Yellow Cab driver who operates one of the two Priuses. "They're absolutely dying to get it."

At Raven Cab Co., Hassan Bouh, 19, whose father owns that business, said he has been driving 15 to 18 hours a day this summer while on a break from classes at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex. He said he has noticed fewer customers on the streets because they are trying to save money.

He finds himself waiting at taxi stands and looking for fares in and around the Inner Harbor, where tourists and office workers look for rides.

"We tend to go more to taxi stands and sit there and try to get customers," Bouh said. "That way, you're not burning as much gas driving around. … Everybody's trying to save money."

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