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Taxi Drivers Feel Pain at the Pump

Cab companies may ask for emergency surcharge to aid employees.

Ahmed Iftikhar sits restively in his taxi cab, aimlessly flipping through a newspaper as the mid-day sun heats his Mercury sedan.

He has been waiting outside the National Science Foundation in Ballston for almost an hour now, glancing up from the paper at each passing pedestrian, hoping they will need a ride across the county or into the District.

In the morning Iftikhar filled up his tank at a gas station— as he does each day— at a cost of $45.

WHILE THE skyrocketing cost of gasoline has hit all car owners, few have been as adversely affected as cab drivers. For cabbies receive no subsidy from their employees to defray the costs, and must pay rising gas bills out of their own pockets.

"It really hurts my income a lot, because sometimes I only make $100 a day," said Iftikhar, who has been driving a cab for 11 years and recently bought his own car.

The Mercury desperately needs an oil change, but after paying rent, feeding four children and making payments on his car, there is little money left over at the end of the month. Even though he owns his own vehicle, Iftikhar still has to pay Blue Top Cab company $150 a week for use of their name and dispatch services.

"Business has been very bad lately," he added, staring out the window. "There’s no relief in sight."

This is a sentiment shared by cab drivers all over the region, as gas prices show few signs of abating below the $3 a gallon threshold. According AAA, the average Arlington driver spends $12 more for 15 gallons of gas than they did a year ago.

"This is not an easy life," lamented Rabi Habib, who pays Hess Cab Company $350 a week to drive one of its taxis.

IN RESPONSE, Arlington taxi companies are considering asking the county government for an emergency gas surcharge, something both Habib and Iftikhar say would greatly improve their bottom line.

Last June, the County Board enacted a 50-cent levy on all taxi trips in the county, due to rising gas prices. When the cost of gasoline spiked in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the board repealed the surcharge and increased the mileage charge from $1.60 to $1.80.

John Massoud, vice-president of Blue Top, said he sent a letter earlier this month to the board members asking that they grant the County Manager the authority to implement future gas surcharges in emergency situations.

Massoud has yet to formally ask the board for a new gas fee on customers but is "leaning toward" doing so. "I don’t know when [gas prices] are coming down and we want to see the maximum amount of money put into drivers’ pockets," he said.

The largest taxi company in the county, Red Top and Yellow Top, is "monitoring the situation," said President Charlie King, and may ask for an increase if petrol prices remain above $3 per gallon.

What the taxi companies are not considering is providing their drivers with a gas subsidy. Drivers for Red Top pay an average of $500 to $600 to use one of the company’s taxis.

"We already operate at a low profit margin," Blue Top’s Massoud said.

County Board Vice Chair Paul Ferguson said he would listen to a request for a gas surcharge, but noted that prices are similar to what they were in October when the mileage fee has hiked.

"I’m very sympathetic to the drivers because we know the increased cost of gas is a hardship," Ferguson said. But he is reluctant to pass on the additional cost to consumers when the cab companies are doing nothing to aid their employees.

INSTEAD, Ferguson said, the businesses should purchase hybrid vehicles, like the Ford Escape, that possess a higher gas mileage than regular cars, saving their drivers a sizable amount of money.

Ferguson had first asked Blue Top and Red Top to implement a hybrid vehicle program last year, and said he was "disappointed" that neither company had acquired a hybrid fleet.

"The cost of gasoline is a great uncertainty and investing in fuel efficiency makes sense for everyone," he added. "From an economic point of view I would hope the cab companies would realize there’s a long-term saving of switching to hybrids."

Massoud agreed with Ferguson that hybrids "are the way of the future," but said they are currently too expensive for his business to purchase in large quantities. While the company is concerned with the environment, Massoud added, he is not yet convinced that hybrids make good taxi cabs.

King, of Red Top, said he is looking into purchasing some hybrids, but questions whether they would be capable of surviving the wear and tear taxis incur.

"These vehicles are not heavy-duty, and taxis on urban streets take a pretty serious pounding in stop-and-go traffic," he added.