Gasoline prices set records Monday amid more signs that pain at the pump is prompting at least some people to rethink how to get from here to there.
They are riding buses more often, buying more fuel-efficient cars and scooters, and curtailing their driving by combining errands and changing their vacation plans.
The relentlessly rising price of a gallon of unleaded gas hit a record $3.47 in the Tampa Bay area and $3.50 nationally, up dramatically from $2.85 a year ago. Diesel fuel, which was $2.93 a year ago, was $4.15 locally and $4.20 nationally Monday, both records.
In a report released Monday, the Consumer Federation of America said 60 percent of consumers it surveyed reported high gas prices are causing financial hardship. The average household spent about $350 more on gasoline during the past three months than it did in the first quarter of 2002, the federation said after surveying 1,004 Americans during the first week of April.
"It's a lot cheaper to ride the bus," said Tom Didonna, 47, who commutes to his job at Evatone, a compact disc manufacturer in Town 'N Country. Didonna, who pays $3.50 for an all-day pass, is among the 1-million riders who now take buses in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties every month.
Ridership is up 7 percent so far this year for the Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit and 10 percent for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
"We see an increase every time we get a spike in gas prices. We've broken our monthly ridership record every month this year," said Bob Lasher, spokesman for the Pinellas authority, which has increased the frequency of buses on its busiest routes.
The trend also has increased business for dealers who sell high-mileage cars and motor scooters.
Peter Spoto, owner of Mojo PowerSports in Largo, said sales jumped 35 percent in the last four weeks. "It started happening when gas prices reached $3.20," Spoto said.
At Barney's Motorcycle & Marine in St. Petersburg, scooter sales are up about 25 percent this year, sales manager J.J. Person said. He said scooters with small engines cost less than $3,000 and get 60 to 100 miles per gallon.
But he says most Americans aren't ready to give up their cars.
"It will take more than $4 a gallon for gas to convert consumers," he said.
The Crown Honda dealership in Pinellas Park said drivers are trading in their Cadillacs, Ford Expeditions and Land Rovers for Honda Civics.
"We have never taken in so many high-line, eight-cylinder cars and trucks as we did in the last three months," said Karin Dubuc, general sales manager.
Drivers increasingly are opting for hybrids, combining electric and gasoline power. Nationally, hybrid sales increased 38 percent last year over 2006, R.L. Polk & Co. reported Monday. In Florida they grew faster, with 19,283 new hybrids registered last year, a 49.5 percent increase. Florida ranked second to California, where 26 percent of the nation's hybrids are registered.
Higher gas costs particularly affect those who commute to work or who use their vehicles on the job. Companies are talking about increasing mileage reimbursement rates, said John Long, president of the St. Petersburg Area of Chamber of Commerce. The chamber increased its rate from 35 to 45 cents on Jan. 1.
Bay Area Commuter Services, which matches people with car pool options, is encouraging businesses to offer employees commuter benefits and become part of a national "Best Workplaces for Commuters Program." One business that's on the list is Tampa law firm Hill Ward Henderson, which offers employees a choice of a parking subsidy or a public transportation subsidy.
The Bay Area Commuter Web site, which used to get 10,000 hits a year, now gets 3,000 a month, executive director Sandi Moody said.
"If you've never looked into this, now would be the time," she said.
Helen Huntley can be reached
or (727) 893-8230.