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Gas prices force commuters to change habits

Published April 25, 2006

General contractor Chip Erickson tries to leave his 3/4-ton truck at home these days and retreat to his 1994 Buick, but it often isn't possible.

"There's always material I have to haul, and all my tools are in the truck," said Erickson, who lives in Seminole and estimates he drives 2,000 to 2,500 miles a month. "When I bought the truck, diesel was 99 cents a gallon. Now it's pushing $3. "Filling up the truck is $85 a pop, so if I don't have to use it, I don't."

Erickson, who says he gets 15 mpg when the truck isn't carrying a heavy says he substitutes phone calls for road trips when he can. "I'm having to add the cost of fuel to the prices I quote for jobs."

Like Erickson and nearly every other driver in the United States, motorists in the Tampa Bay area are trying to find ways around soaring fuel prices. Increasingly, some are using buses, bicycles and motor scooters.

Among dozens of people interviewed this week, only one wasn't concerned about fuel prices. But she was riding a small motor scooter that gets 86 miles to the gallon.

"It costs me less than $4 to fill it up once every two weeks," said Sheryll Perez, 19, of Clearwater. "The only thing I worry about is getting caught in the rain."

In the Tampa Bay area, the average price of a gallon of regular gas hit $2.92 on Tuesday, and some stations were as high as $2.99. Mid-grade and premium were well over $3 in many locations, and diesel averaged $2.93.

The highest average price ever recorded for regular gasoline in Tampa Bay was $2.99 inSeptember, according to AAA.

Around the state, regular gas spiked over $3 a gallon in Daytona Beach, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers.

The fuel costs have hit Dixie Santolli hard.

"Between gas and medicine, people can't eat anymore," said Santolli of Tampa, who says she is making more casseroles because they last longer and staying away from high-priced fresh produce.

Among those who can't avoid their cars are real estate agents, several of whom report driving up to 2,500 miles a month.

"We're already reeling from a slowdown in the market, and now these prices are piling on," said Alayne Shagane of Realty Express in Tampa. "A lot more Realtors are doing preliminary work on the internet, narrowing choices to cut their driving."

And some, she said, are shifting the burden to clients.

"They're having clients do prescreening," Shagane said. "A client might want to see an area or a school ahead of time, and a Realtor might tell him to get in his car on Saturday and go look, and if you're still interested, call me on Sunday."

Meredith Forsythe, vice president of Marlin Title in Safety Harbor, takes real estate closings to her clients and won't change the practice. She puts 2,500 miles a month on her Toyota Camry.

"Gas prices haven't altered a thing for me," Forsythe said. "It's just a cost of doing business. I'm not going to make clients come to me just so I can shift the economic burden to them."

Delivery services, including Federal Express and UPS, are raising their fuel surcharges. FexEx's 12 percent charge for express service will increase to 13.5 percent in May and FedEx Ground will go from 3.5 percent to 3.75 percent in May. UPS Ground is the same as FedEx. Air and international service is an extra 12.5 percent.

Chris Hagelin of Temple Terrace has long commuted by bicycle to his job at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. He used to commute alone. Since last fall, he said, he has seen a dramatic increase in bicycle commuters, even though his ride includes a need to cross busy Fowler Avenue.

"People think I'm crazy," he said.

New Tampa resident Michelle Johnson started riding the HARTline New Tampa Express a month ago. The first day, she rode it alone. On Monday, there were 10 passengers. It takes the same amount of time to get to downtown Tampa, Johnson said, but it's less stressful.

Regular bus ridership is up. Janet Recca, spokeswoman for PSTA in Pinellas County, said people calling for bus information are mentioning high gas prices as a reason to leave their cars at home. In Hillsborough, HARTline passenger growth has been steady, rather than coming in spurts that coincide with fuel price increases, making it difficult to determine the cause of the ridership surge.

Bay Area Commuter Services, which matches car poolers, hasn't seen an increase in calls, but Executive Director Sandi Moody said that could change if fuel prices continue to rise.

It's too early to know how fuel prices will affect summer vacation plans. Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South, said people probably will go somewhere but might pick destinations closer to home.

There is no shortage of gasoline in Florida, Laskoski said, though motorists might see a station here and there closed. The closures are to allow fuel storage tanks to be scrubbed and thoroughly dried in preparation for new gasoline blended with ethanol, a fuel made from corn.

"I hope operators who have to close for that reason have the sense to post an explantion, instead of just covering the pump handles and letting people think gas supplies ran out," he said.

Rising prices at the pump have been good for some businesses. Several stores that sell motor scooters say their sales have gone up steadily since September, the last time fuel prices spiked, because of Hurricane Katrina.

"It's skyrocketing," said Bill Lynch, owner of Action Wheel Sport in St. Petersburg. "For this month along, our numbers will be up about 30 percent over last year."

[Last modified April 25, 2006, 21:21:02]

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