Freedom is costly. Ask Patricia Case. A decade ago, she gave up life as a restaurant cashier and hospital worker to drive a cab in the District of Columbia. She wanted to set her own hours, be her own boss.

Instead, she wound up working 16 hours a day and practically going broke in the process.

Case's story is not unlike many of the District's 8,000 licensed cabdrivers, which is why they are rejoicing today over the D.C. Taxicab Commission's decision to raise cab fares 22 percent in January.

The raise won't make the drivers rich. It will simply move them to a higher level of subsistence in a business that drains cash faster than oil pouring from a leaky engine.

Case's weekly taxi operating budget tells the story.

Like most cabbies in the city, Case is an owner-operator, which means she owns her own car but buys the right to drive under a company's name and logo. On a typical day, she makes 25 trips at an average fare of $4.60 each, plus tips. Each trip crosses at least two of the District's eight cab zones. With tips, Case pulls in about $125 a day, $750 a week if she works six days. Often, she says, it takes a 16-hour day to bring in that income, since so much of a cabdriver's time is spent cruising for fares or waiting in line at a hotel.

Sounds good?

Think again.

To keep her 1980 Plymouth Gran Fury on the road, Case has to spend about $393.64 weekly in fuel, fees, repair, fines and other costs, according to records she agreed to show a reporter. That leaves her with a net weekly income of $356.36, which she could lose if she forgets to display her taxi driver's identification card -- which drivers are required to take in and out of the cab every time they leave the vehicle. The fine for that offense is $500.

"I'm supposed to be an independent contractor," said Case, who has taken a full-time job and now drives her cab only two days a week. "I'm not independent at all," Case said. "I owe my soul to the company store in every sense of the word."

The "company store," in this instance, is American Cab, one of several companies owned by District Cab, which has 600 drivers. Case bought her used Fury in 1984 for $4,500, plopping down $500 in cash and paying $65 a week for two years.

Like other District cabdrivers, Case often has her car repaired by the company, which typically finances the repair and places a lien against the car until the repair charge is paid off.

But Case figures herself lucky. Some District cabdrivers rent their cabs for $190 to $223 a week, depending on the vehicle and the company leasing the car.

The toughest work is "bumping the curb," Case said. "Bumping the curb" literally means pulling over to the curb, randomly picking up passengers, hoping that they will go farther than several blocks within one zone. They often don't, which means a fare of about $2.30 under the old structure and an equally skimpy tip, Case said The new fare will be $3.50 for one zone. What makes "bumping the curb" worse is "all of the gasoline you waste to get one fare," Case said.

The best rides, say Case and others, are those that take the driver out of the District to Dulles or some point beyond, often for straight fares of $30 or more, money made better by generous tips from grateful executives who get to their flights on time. Those kinds of trips shorten the workday, which means less wear and tear on the car, and ring up more dollars in a shorter period of time.

It's a rough business, said Andrew Schaeffer, vice president of District Cab. "But the business is getting bad for everybody, including the companies and the owner-operators.

Rising vehicle prices, fuel costs, insurance costs and other costs are affecting companies the same way they are affecting drivers, Schaeffer said. But he said that he sympathizes with people like Case.

"I'll tell you," Schaeffer said, commenting on Case's new status as a part-timer, "the part-time driver pretty much is a thing of the past. By the time they finish paying for gas, insurance stickers and all of that, they're pretty much out of the ball game," he said.

Carrolena Key, chairwoman of the Taxicab Commission, said that many of the drivers' complaints are legitimate, especially their complaints about fares, which she called "among the lowest in the nation."

Owner-operator: Patricia Case

Cab company: American Cab Co.

Car: 1980 Plymouth Gran Fury, equipped with a 5.7-liter V-8 engine. Bought used in 1984 from American Cab Co. for $4,500, with a $500 down payment.

WEEKLY OPERATING EXPENSES

ITEM..................................COST

Car loan payments: ....................$65

Auto insurance: .......................$33

Dues for using American Cab's

logo and colors: .......................$10

Cab license tags: .......................$2

Driver ID card: .......................$.67

D.C. driver's license:................. $.7

D.C. Taxicab Commission license: .....$2.10

Fines (by District police and

taxicab inspectors, for traffic

and operating infractions; average

based on estimates by several drivers):....$25

Gasoline (premium unleaded, at $1.57 a

gallon during a six-day work week): ......$168

Oil changes: ............................$2.02

Front-end alignment: ...................$14.50

Brake repairs/inspection: ...............$6.19

Tires: .................................$12.50

Tuneups: ................................$2.88

Car wash (depends on weather; drivers are

fined $50 for having a dirty cab):$5.50 to $15

Air conditioning check: .................$1.13

Two-way radio (purchase): ..............$10.58

Two-way radio (use): ......................$23

TOTAL WEEKLY EXPENSES: .....$384.14 to $393.64

INCOME

On an average day, Case says she makes 25 trips. The D.C. Taxicab Commission estimates the fare for a typical trip is $4.60. With tips, she then makes about $125 a day, but after the expenses listed above, about $59.40 a day -- or $356.40 in a six-day week -- is left over.

NOTE: Repairs and maintenance, license and tag renewals and other expenses are incurred in varying frequency; costs given are averages for a week based on total yearly expenses.

SOURCES: Patricia Case; other drivers