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Gas Pains: Businesses, agencies feeling the pinch

For most drivers the escalating gas prices at the pumps are a “pain in the gas,” but it’s a tolerable pain — so far. Studies show drivers have not yet altered their road habits significantly in response to $2-plus per gallon gas prices. But those who drive for a living are feeling the pain much more acutely.

From taxis to pizza delivery, gas prices are getting personal.

“It’s affecting us pretty bad,” Muriel O’Brien, driver for Sunshine-Bayview Cab, said.

Taxi drivers split their fares with the company, and have to gas up their cars out of their own pockets.

O’Brien takes the blame all the way to the top.

“I don’t personally like the president,” she said. “I think he’s the one responsible for this mess we’re in.”

Stephen Reames is taking over ownership of Sunshine-Bayview Cab, and he’s planning on asking the Oak Harbor City Council for a rate increase along with his license approval request. Taxi fares are regulated, and increases must be approved by local governments.

The current taxi rate is $1.80 to start, and $1.80 per mile. Reames will ask for an increase to $2 to start and $2 per mile.

Reames said although it’s been tough on the drivers, his business is actually increasing along with the soaring gas prices.

“A lot of people depend on cabs who don’t drive,” he said.

At Triangle Taxi, which operates out of Anacortes with runs to Whidbey Island, Mount Vernon and SeaTac, driver Aaron Taylor is also taking it in the wallet.

“You come out with pretty much nothing after filling up at the end of the day,” he said from his car phone as he cruised for customers.

On a busy day there’s still a narrow profit, but on slow days he said he’s lucky to break even. He estimated he’s making $20 to $30 less per day. Fortunately for Taylor, taxi driving is a second income. He also works as a cook in Oak Harbor.

“If it was my main job I’d look for other work,” he said.

Whidbey SeaTac Shuttle, operating out of Oak Harbor, uses the motto: “Friends don’t ask friends to drive them to SeaTac,” and company president John Solin said that’s truer now than ever, although his business has also taken a profit hit.

The company’s 9-passenger diesel vans makes five round trips to SeaTac airport daily, and diesel prices have risen from $1.63 when it opened for business in December 2003, to the current $2.25 per gallon.

“It has added $500-plus to our (monthly) fuel bill,” Solin said.

The fledging company has not been in business long enough to apply for a fare increase from the state. Its only recourse is to apply for a fuel surcharge of 50 cents per person each way.

“We can’t pass it all on to the customer,” Solin said.

With no price increases in the first six months of operations, the SeaTac shuttle has seen a steady erosion of its projected profits.

“We’re several thousand dollars behind,” Solin said.

On the plus side however, ridership is up, with people realizing it costs more to drive and park at the Seattle airport than to take the shuttle.

“Overall I think our rates are very attractive,” Solin said.

The service charges $62 round trip for an adult, $54 round trip for seniors and military, and $31 for kids under 16. At approximately 200 miles round trip, plus the ferry, Solin said it’s still cheaper than driving.

“We’re looking forward to a busy season,” Solin said.

He’ll have to watch fuel prices to decide if he needs to apply for a continuation of the state fuel surcharge, which is allotted on a month to month basis.

Local governments are also bracing to see how rising fuel prices will affect their budgets.

Doug Merriman, City of Oak Harbor finance director, said the city hasn’t felt the pinch yet, but it will in the next purchase cycle. The city buys fuel in bulk which is used by city vehicles, including city police.

With fuel prices not expected to come down any time soon, Merriman said they will be on the agenda at the upcoming mid-year budget review.

“From the budget standpoint, it’s something we watch,” Merriman said.

The Island County Sheriff’s Office has no choice but to continue to rack up mileage, despite the rising costs.

“We still have to maintain our mission,” spokesperson Jan Smith said.

The Sheriff’s Office buys fuel for the county road department, and in comparison to what consumers pay it’s a steal. The budget for May shows a purchase price of $1.87, including administrative costs. But the budget was not created with the current 30 percent fuel cost increase in mind.

“Our budget was not built to anticipate this type of impact,” Smith said. “It’s serious.”

Sheriff’s deputies patrol approximately 300 to 350 miles in a 10-hour shift, she said. “They can’t park and not respond.”

It may not be life or death, but another group that has to respond when a call comes in is the pizza delivery people.

“It’s been crazy,” Domino’s Pizza driver Kristen Moroge said of the gas prices.

Domino’s drivers get a base wage, plus 75 cents per run. Moroge estimated she makes 18 to 20 runs in a shift. At that rate, she has seen a significant decline in her profits.

“It cuts into my tips, and if I don’t get any tips it’s really bad,” she said.

She and the other Domino’s drivers are planning on having a talk with the boss when he returns from vacation, hoping for an increase in either wages or trip reimbursement.

“If I don’t get a raise I’ll probably have to look for work elsewhere,” she said, “but it’s really hard to find a job in Oak Harbor.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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