Drivers feel the pain as gas nears $4 a gallon

By Michael E. Ruane and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 2:10 PM

They have kids, mortgages, bills and eight-cylinder sedans that get lousy gas mileage and demand to be filled up every day.

Rising gas prices are killing the cabbies, costing them an extra $20 a day to fill their tanks. Some people are driving less, and others are looking for different ways to get from here to there. Carpooling has fresh appeal, the train seems a more viable option, office bike racks are filling up earlier in the morning and some drivers say they are not as cavalier in planning their Saturday morning errands as they were at $2.60 a gallon.

If gas prices stay high long enough, the trickledown hits even those who rarely depend on combustion engines to get around. Groceries get to the market in trucks. Packages get delivered to the front door in vans. Every store in the mall is filled with goods that arrived on wheels propelled by $100-a-barrel oil. Unless oil goes down, price tags will click up or profits will suffer.

"I just pump," said Gary Eckstein as he filled his Jeep Wrangler at an Exxon station on Lee Highway in Fairfax County. "I hate to look at it."

His wife helps hunt down the cheapest prices. This week that was $3.82 a gallon and $47.80 to fill the tank.

"It's worth it to her," he said with a shrug. "Not to me."

Although Eckstein can tailor his driving to suit his budget, cabdrivers are stuck between what one described as "a rock and the point of a spear." Their rates are regulated, so bumping up fares to keep pace with gas prices is out of the question.

"I spend every day 45, 50 dollars," said Kefelegen M. Abate, 32, of Northwest Washington, who has been driving a cab in the District for six years.

Most taxis are larger vehicles, Fords or Lincolns, that burn a gallon of gas every 12 to 16 miles.

"I can't afford it," Abate said. "I'm driving 16, 17 hours [a day]. I have two kids. By the end of the day, by the time I get in the house, I can't make that much money to survive."

In Chicago, cabbies are allowed to collect a $1 fuel surcharge when gas rises above $3.20 a gallon for seven straight business days, but there is no such boost for local taxi drivers.

Monitoring price jumps

Gas prices averaged $3.63 a gallon in the District this week, though some stations in the region were charging $4 a gallon. AAA's weekly survey found a $4.55 per gallon charge at the Watergate Exxon station on Virginia Avenue NW.

AAA spokesman John B. Townsend II said fears that prices will average above $4 or toward $5 are probably unfounded.

"We continue to believe that retail prices could range between $3.50 and $3.75 in the months ahead," he said.

With demand for gasoline slipping nationwide, prices might become steady, analysts said this week. That's the hope of businesses, which must decide whether to pass on high prices to customers.

"We continually monitor current price increases," said Kara Gerhardt Ross, a spokeswoman for UPS. "We have great concern if oil prices stay high and volatile for too long, because it affects the entire economy."

Though the big picture on travel trends won't emerge for several weeks, there was evidence that many travelers, locally and nationally, were opting not to drive. Amtrak reported a 7.6 percent increase in ridership for February compared with the same month in 2010. Virginia Railway Express, which carries commuters into the District, has recorded nine of its top 10 ridership days since gas prices began to climb, and Fairfax Connector buses carried 45,000 more passengers in February than they did the month before.

Capital Bikeshare, a program that provides quick-trip bikes for use in the District and Arlington County, reported that its bikes were used 48,215 times in February, almost matching the 48,217 trips in November, when the weather was warmer.

John Lisle, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, said some of the use might be attributed to a Winter Weather Warrior contest that promoted biking during the frigid months.

"I can't say how much of the use might be because of high gas prices," Lisle said. "We really were amazed at how many people rode this winter."

Sherrie Lawson, who rode her bike Friday from her Deanwood home to work at her church, said expensive gas has her pondering whether to replace her ailing Jeep or give up driving.

"I started biking last year, and I'm getting much more into it," Lawson said. "Do I buy another car with gas so high, or do I just stay focused on the bike?"

A couple of days of dreary weather kept bike commuting down, but Gonzalo Escobar at CycleLife USA in Georgetown said that's about to change.

"We're a pit stop along the way for bike commuters coming in from Bethesda," said Escobar, whose bike center includes a coffee shop. "As soon as the nice days come, things will skyrocket."

Anne Mader, who owns the Bike Lane shops in Reston and Burke, said gas prices have brought business through her doors.

"We have definitely seen more people coming in talking about the higher gas prices and looking at bikes for commuting," Mader said. "We have also had an increase in customers bringing out their old bikes and getting them fixed up and putting racks, bags and lights on them. We saw this a couple of years ago with the increase in gas prices, and we are seeing it again."

Commuters' outlook

Another uptick attributed to the cost of driving came in the number of people who showed interest in carpooling.

The Commuter Connections ride-sharing service saw interest increase by 70 percent in January and 95 percent last month over the same months in 2010.

"There's a definite correlation," said Nicholas W. Ramfos, who directs the program for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the transit authority hasn't identified any trends caused by gas prices, although ridership tends to rise this time of year as the weather improves, baseball returns and the cherry blossoms bloom.

Shomari Smith, 28, said it's more convenient and far cheaper to take Metro for his daily commute from Northeast Washington to his job in Tysons Corner. But during the hot, humid months of summer, he prefers to drive his air-conditioned sport-utility vehicle.

If gas prices remain "ridiculous," however, this summer will be different.

"I know I won't be driving," Smith said.

Staff writers Kafia A. Hosh, Katherine Shaver and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company