Charleston taxi driver William Nelson said he paid more than $50 to gas up his Safety Cab car on Monday, and he's hoping that City Council goes ahead with a plan that would allow taxis to impose fuel surcharges.

The surcharges would be one aspect of a new taxi-rate system in the city that's aimed at simplifying fares, leveling the field between metered and non-metered cabs, and giving the companies a way to compensate when gas prices rise. In most cases, customers would pay a bit more than they do now.

On Monday afternoon, a City Council committee held a hearing on the issue. The surcharges could take effect toward the end of this month if the full council approves them.

The city's plan, supported by the cab companies, would require all taxis to have meters by July 1, and would set a new flat fee of $5 for cab rides anywhere on the peninsula below Mount Pleasant Street. Taxi companies could charge less, if they like, but not more.

However, cabs would also be allowed to charge a dollar for each extra passenger, and an extra 50 cents if gas prices are at $3 or more, as they are now.

Under the proposed system, each 50-cent increase in gas prices over $3 would bring another 50-cent surcharge, with a maximum surcharge of $3.50 if gas prices were to rise to $6.50 a gallon.

"The main reason taxi companies have come before City Council over the years is the fluctuation in the price of gas," said Hernan Pena, director of the city's Department of Traffic and Transportation. "Gas is above $3 now, so I think this is very timely."

The new regulations also are seen as a way of putting a cap on downtown cab fares, because rides in metered cabs today could potentially exceed the proposed cap.

Still, Yellow Cab co-owner Jerry Crosby, whose company has meters in all of its cabs, said it's a good plan.

The requirement that all cabs have meters, Crosby said, could help reduce the number of illegal cab services.

Under the system now in place, non-metered cabs charge a flat rate of $4 for a trip of two miles or less on the peninsula. Off the peninsula, non-metered cabs use a zone system that would be eliminated by the new rules, and all cabs would use meters and charge $4 for the first two miles and 35 cents for each additional one-fifth of a mile. The new extra passenger fee and fuel charges would apply.

Add up all the proposals, and with the current price of gas, a short downtown cab ride would go from as little as $4 now to $5.50 if the rates are approved by City Council.

The current system is confusing enough that the last two times taxi companies sought approval for a rate increase from the city, they ended up with rate decreases. A series of changes in 2005 effectively dropped the rate for a 2-mile trip from $5.25 to $5.15, and in 2008 the rate for that trip was cut to $4.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.