Before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Ric Hiller monitored the fuel used by Arlington County's 1,500 county-owned vehicles on a monthly basis. Now, he checks it daily.
Hiller, chief of the county's equipment bureau, is pushing employees to conserve fuel, eliminate nonessential vehicle runs and even limit idling of county vehicles unless absolutely necessary. "Fuel prices are going out of sight, and county agencies didn't budget all that much for fuel,'' Hiller said. "So we are having to go back and see where we can conserve."
The steps taken by the county illustrate how rising gasoline prices -- fueled in part by damage that hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused to Gulf Coast refineries -- are affecting local residents and governments in a variety of ways.
Taxi riders are feeling much of the pinch. On Saturday,the Arlington County Board will consider a proposal to raise the mileage charge portion of taxi rates from $1.60 per mile to $1.80 per mile. The measure is designed to cover increased fuel and maintenance costs and other operating expenses, said Charles Taylor, a county spokesman.
If approved, the increase would be Arlington's latest step to help taxi drivers offset the rising price of gas. In June the County Board approved a temporary fuel surcharge of 50 cents a trip for taxis, and in July the board extended it. The mileage charge increase to be considered Saturday would eliminate that surcharge.
In Alexandria, the cost of taxi rides has been steadily increasing all year. The City Council imposed a fuel surcharge of 50 cents a trip in January and then extended it in May. In June, the council incorporated the surcharge into the base taxi fare because members "decided that gas prices aren't going back down,'' said Tom Culpepper, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
Even that wasn't enough, Culpepper said. In late August, the council approved an additional $1 fuel surcharge per taxi trip. "The drastic increase in fuel prices has certainly impacted the drivers, and that is being passed on to the consumers," Culpepper said.
Higher prices at the pump also seem to be encouraging more people to ride the bus. Total ridership on Alexandria's DASH buses jumped 14.9 percent in August compared with August of last year, said James Maslanka, the city's chief of transit services. "That's a very sizable increase. It's more than just a statistical blip. . . . At least some of it is the gas prices," Maslanka said.
Although overall figures showing how much more local governments will pay in fuel costs this year were not available, Maslanka provided one example. A city service that transports people with disabilities in taxis and vans is facing about $70,000 in additional fuel costs this year, he said.
Higher fuel prices are also driving more local motorists into the arms of car-sharing companies.
Arlington resident Caroline Brown had owned a car until it was stolen in the District. In August, she joined Zipcar, one of two car-share companies operating in the Washington region. The companies station vehicles in neighborhoods; members can use the vehicles for a flat rate, usually about $8.50 an hour. The rate covers the cost of insurance and gas.
"With gas prices continuing to go up, I just thought it made the most sense to go with Zipcar, and so far it's been great," said Brown, who uses a Honda Element that is parked several blocks from her home.
Gabe Klein, Zipcar's regional vice president, said membership in Arlington increased 25 percent from June to August and has continued to rise since then. Zipcar has about 2,000 members in Arlington.
The county has been encouraging car-sharing as a way to get residents to give up their cars, and it promotes walking, bicycling and public transportation to ease traffic congestion and reduce pollution.
"As gas prices go higher and higher, people are starting to make some hard choices,'' Klein said. "They're starting to say, 'Do I want to be able to eat out twice a week, do I want to keep this quality of life or do I want to have a car?' You can't have it all.''