- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

Escalating fuel prices are straining the already-burdened budgets of local schools, police and fire departments, which provide emergency or transportation services with large fleets of vehicles.
"It's hitting everybody pretty hard, and of course, these are tight budget times, so it's not a good thing," said Jim Gorby, who manages the fire and police fleets in Fairfax County.
Local motorists are paying $42 more each month than they were this time last year, according to estimates compiled by AAA Mid-Atlantic. With diesel-fuel prices also on the rise, schools, police and fire officials throughout the region are feeling the pinch, too.
Prince George's County schools now pay twice the amount they did six months ago to fill up their 1,303 buses and other school vehicles. Schools now pay $1.56 a gallon, up from 75 cents, for the 3.4 million gallons of diesel fuel they use each year.
Fairfax County firefighters and police officers now pay $1.32 a gallon to fill up each of their 350 firetrucks and 650 police cruisers. Their counterparts in the District pay up to $2 a gallon, or about $100 to fill up one 50-gallon-capacity firetruck.
Arlington County school officials estimated yesterday that they will be $70,000 over budget because of higher fuel costs. They are trying to rework the budget.
"Between this and snow costs, they've got a lot of problem-solving to do," county schools spokeswoman Adrian Carver said.
If prices continue to rise in Prince George's County, officials said, the county's expenditure for fuel would jump from about $2.5 million to nearly $5.3 million for the year.
Fairfax County firetrucks and police cruisers use 2.1 million gallons of unleaded gasoline and 5.4 million gallons of diesel fuel each year, Mr. Gorby said. The price of unleaded gasoline has risen 36 percent and diesel prices have increased by 60 percent, he said.
But, Mr. Gorby said, the county still pays less than other counties because it has a contract with a supplier and uses its own filling stations.
D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the city firetrucks fill up at regular gas stations in Southwest, where diesel fuel is selling for more than $2 a gallon. "We don't have the luxury of not using the [trucks]. We are not going to park the trucks to save money," he said.
Meanwhile, many motorists are turning to Metro to get around town.
Metro officials said yesterday that ridership numbers this month are up nearly 9 percent, compared to figures posted last month.
Last month, the average daily ridership was 605,000. For the first two weeks of March, average daily ridership has been 659,027, he said.
"Something has been going [up] over the last three weeks," said Ray Feldmann, a Metro spokesman. "People may be trying to make that tank of gas last a little longer. … Ridership usually goes up in spring, but not in March."
The average daily ridership in March 2002 was 625,333, Mr. Feldmann said.
Metro officials said the rising gasoline prices are not hurting the Metrobus service, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary yesterday. In January 2002, Metro signed an 18-month fixed-price deal to pay 83 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. When that contract ends in June, it has a 14-month contract that fixes the price at 93 cents a gallon.
"Even if the price of diesel fuel continues to rise, we have ensured that our budget will not be adversely impacted," said Jack Requa, Metro's chief operating officer for buses. Metrobus operates 1,443 diesel-fueled buses and 164 buses that run on compressed natural gas.
Prince George's schools don't have a contract like Metro does, said Vicki Rosenbloom, a spokeswoman for the county's central garage.
"We're not locked into a certain price because no contractor would touch us. We get a price change every two weeks," Miss Rosenbloom said. "Our prices keep going up."

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