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Cabbies, squeezed by gas prices, appeal for aid

Press regulators to approve surcharges, increases in fares

NEW YORK -- Looking to top off his tank at the start of another shift, Frederic Valmord eased his taxi into a West Side gas station and gingerly squeezed the pump. Five gallons cost him $16.

Valmord, 62, shook his head.

Like most New York cabbies, he is an independent operator who leases his taxi for between $105 and $129 a day. Fuel costs him another $35, meaning he sometimes spends hours hustling for fares before he makes a dime.

On his worst days, Valmord said, he goes home from his 12-hour shift with as little as $60 in his pocket.

''It can happen," said Valmord, a cab driver since 1976. ''This is about as bad as it has ever been."

Cabbies squeezed by high fuel costs have been asking regulators in Boston and around the country to authorize fare increases or temporary surcharges to help them restore profits lost at the pumps.

Their appeals began months ago, but have intensified since Hurricane Katrina crippled refining capacity in the United States, driving prices above $3.

A handful of cities have already granted some relief.

The taxi commission in Washington, D.C., voted this month to allow drivers to charge an extra $1.50 per trip for at least the next four months. The surcharge replaced an earlier $1 fee put in place in May.

Philadelphia officials approved a 30-cent-per-mile hike in July, and are now contemplating an additional surcharge because gas prices have increased so much, so fast. Baltimore raised fares in late June. Los Angeles officials are close to approving a 10 percent increase, plus surcharges of 50 cents to $1, depending on the price of fuel.

In late August, once gas prices climbed above $3, Boston's taxi drivers banded together to request relief from city officials, urging them to approve a 50-cent surcharge to help recoup some of what they must now spend on increased gas prices -- something they had initially asked for in March when gas went above $2 a gallon. Boston has about 1,825 taxi drivers who gross about $75 to $150 in a typical 12-hour shift. They pay about $80 to rent their cab for a day.

''In speaking with some of the city officials, they were very sympathetic," said Larry Meister, vice president of the Independent Taxi Operators Association in Boston.

But Meister said he and others are wary of increases that will cause demand for cab rides to drop so much that taxi drivers' income are hit.

''You don't want to scare away the customer because then you are going to have even more stories of guys who aren't able to make enough to take care of their families," he said of the drivers.

In Chicago, cabdriver Chulam Malik said fare adjustments are sorely needed.

In recent weeks, he said has been spending an extra $10 to $15 per shift on gasoline, despite trying to conserve fuel by spending more time waiting for fares at hotels and airports, where he can turn his engine off, and less time cruising for passengers.

''That's $330, $300 a month from my profit," he said.

Chicago's City Council approved a 12 percent fare increase in May, but higher fuel prices have since wiped out the raise. Now, drivers want a $1 surcharge.

Unlike other businesses that can simply raise their prices when fuel costs soar, like bus companies or airlines, taxi fares in most places are set by the government.

New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission approved its last major fare adjustment in the spring of 2004, when gas cost about $1.90 per gallon.

Drivers have been begging for another hike, especially considering that gas prices in New York are among the highest in the nation.

The average New York cab gets 18 miles a gallon and is driven for 43,992 miles each year, according to the commission.

At $3.20 per gallon, that would make the average cab's yearly fuel bill $7,820 -- or nearly $3,200 more than when the current rate structure was set.

The difference constitutes a major pay decrease for the typical New York cabbie.

Driver Daniel Habib, a father of four from Bergenfield, N.J., said he skipped taking a summer vacation this year because of his dwindling income.

''If this keeps up, you're not going to be able to find any drivers," he said. ''Why would someone drive a cab if they can't make a living?"

Taxi and Limousine Commission chairman Matthew W. Daus said his board is considering three proposals for surcharges to help with fuel costs, but is hesitant to implement another increase while fuel prices are unstable.

''The drivers have a legitimate complaint over the last two weeks. Let's see whether that continues," he said. ''Drivers are earning a little bit less, but they are still earning a living wage and doing quite well."

Drivers in the city had an average pretax profit of $168 per 12-hour shift after their last raise in 2004, according to commission estimates.

Besides studying the possibility of a surcharge, the commission this month for the first time approved the use of hybrid vehicles as taxis.

The cars run on a combination of gas and electricity and get vastly better mileage than traditional cabs.

Vincent Sapone, managing director of the League of Mutual Taxi Owners, which represents about 3,000 owner-operators of city cabs, said most drivers can't wait months for relief.

''These are hard-working men," he said. ''Let the stock brokers in their million-and-a-half-dollar condos pay an extra buck. They can afford it."

Globe Correspondent Emma Stickgold contributed to this report.

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