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Cab drivers feeling a pinch at the pumps

Before the Middle East crisis, John Mearls rarely compared gasoline prices when filling up his Yellow Cab. That's changed. "We've got to shop around now," Mearls said Tuesday as he drove to a Clearwater Gas 'N Save that had the lowest prices in the area. He also tries to save fuel by using his air conditioner less and avoiding "jackrabbit" starts when a traffic light turns green.

Mearls and other cabbies are feeling the pinch from rising gas prices. Some cab companies have added a 25- or 35-cent fuel surcharge to each trip. Others absorb the extra expense but say they may need to raise fares if gas keeps going up.

Bus companies also have raised rates because of higher diesel fuel prices. Gulf Coast Gray Line and Adventure Express have added a 5 percent surcharge on all charter contracts.

"It really doesn't cover what we're paying, but it takes some of the sting out of it," said Andre Hobson, chief executive officer of Clearwater-based Adventure Express.

Drivers pay about 31 cents more for a gallon of gasoline than Aug. 2 when the Middle East crisis began. Although oil prices on the futures market have fallen sharply this week, analysts said it will be a few weeks before the lower prices show up at the pump.

The soaring prices have been especially hard on cab drivers because they use so much fuel. Most of them lease their cabs and have to pay for their own fill-ups.

"They are starting to feel it," said Nancy Castellano, general manager of United Cab Co. in Tampa. Her company has not added a surcharge.

Take Mearls, for example. He said he pays an extra $40 to $50 every week _ money that comes out of his profit.

His company, Clearwater Yellow Cab, has added a 25-cent surcharge to each trip, said spokesman Allen Weatherilt. The surcharge also applies to cabs operating under 15 names in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties that are affiliated with Clearwater Yellow. They include Beach Taxi, Largo Blue Cab, Pasco Yellow Cab and Hernando Yellow Cab.

Customers have not raised a fuss about the extra charge, Weatherilt said. "I think everybody pretty much understands how gasoline prices have gone skyrocketing," he said.

Yellow Cab of St. Petersburg, which is not affiliated with the Clearwater company, has imposed a 35-cent surcharge on every trip. Both companies said they plan to remove the surcharges if gas prices go down substantially.

Some companies have avoided a surcharge but found other ways to cut costs. Rose Kasper, owner of the Bayonet Point Little Limo in Pasco, charges customers 25 cents per minute for waiting time. That time used to be free.

Tampa cab companies, which must get county approval to raise their prices, have not requested an increase, said a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. But Castellano of United Cab said the cabbies are nearing the breaking point.

"If it continues to go up, something is going to have to be done," she said.

Two airport van services have not increased fares because they raised them right before the Middle East crisis began.

Byron Shouppe, president of the Limo Inc. van service, said he is waiting to see how gas prices change in the next few weeks before he decides whether to add a surcharge.

Michael Belmont, president of Go Transit van service, said he will try to absorb the increase as long as possible. It costs him $400 to $500 extra a week, he said.

"It's always the little guy that suffers, and I'm the little guy," he said. "I struggle every day to survive."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.