tampabay.com

Climbing prices bring gas pains

Last year the average price for gas was $2.22 per gallon locally. Today you can expect to shell out $2.61.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published April 7, 2006


A customer walked into a BP station in Pinellas Park on Thursday and laid down all the money he could afford for gasoline - $1.35 in coins, enough for about half a gallon.

"I see people do that a lot, just dumping the change in their pocket to get to work," said Maged Tadros, owner of the station on Haines Road.

Whether people are paying with pennies or plastic, gas prices are soaring again, and drivers across the Tampa Bay area are being forced to turn out their pockets at the pump.

Gasoline prices in the Tampa Bay area have risen to about $2.61 per gallon for regular and $2.94 for premium, according to AAA. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says the nationwide price for regular gasoline, nearly $2.59, is more than 37 cents higher than this time a year ago.

"It doesn't really bode well to see gas prices at $2.65, $2.66 and higher before we even get to Memorial Day," said Gregg Laskoski of AAA Auto Club South.

Oil and gasoline futures also rose Thursday, with crude oil briefly rising above $68 a barrel before settling at $67.94.

Some consumers are worried gasoline prices might zoom back to the $3 range as they did last September, spurred partly by refinery damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.

Although prices have not yet climbed that high, demand for gasoline traditionally picks up after Memorial Day weekend when the summer vacation season begins.

One reason for the recent price increase has been refineries preparing to use a different antipollution additive, spurred by state regulators and concerns about liability, said energy economist John L. Williams. That is creating a scramble to produce enough gasoline with the new additive, Williams said.

But he was optimistic that it will probably sort itself out before long, leading prices to drop 20 or 30 cents a gallon in a month or so.

Either way, the current prices demand some coping strategies for just about anyone who drives.

Carrie Leshore travels twice each day to her job as a St. Petersburg traffic guard, drives to another job at a home furnishings store, and also gives her mother rides to the doctor's office. But with gas prices rising, she takes a different approach on weekends.

"Most of the time, I leave this parked," said Leshore, 50, nodding toward her car.

In Tampa, Carlos Vieda chose Super Mario's Gas at Columbus and Howard avenues - the phrase "Discount Gas" advertised far more conspicuously than "Super Mario" - thanks to its $2.60 price for regular. Neighboring stations charged a few cents more.

"It's about four blocks out of my way to work, but I think that more than pays off," said Vieda, who drives a Pontiac Sunfire.

Just up the street at GasKwick, Charles Tenna paid $20 cash to get his fuel gauge needle a notch over the "E" mark. It's not much of a notch, either: Tenna drives a Chevrolet Avalanche.

Still a day away from payday, Tenna said, he was in no shape to fill up the enormous SUV, which gets less than 20 miles to the gallon even on the highway.

Jason Chalk, who installs kitchens and makes custom furniture, said he was spending as much as $100 on gas a day last year when he drove to jobs in the Orlando area. Time to make a change.

"I had an old '87 Jeep Wagoneer. It's a nice one with wood on the side," he said fondly. But it only got about 8 miles per gallon. So he bought a white Chevrolet Silverado with a six-cylinder engine that he hoped would save on gas. So far, he said, results have been disappointing, so he saves in other ways.

"I just don't buy extra stuff, I just budget a little better and hope the oil industry realizes they're making enough money," said Chalk, 33, of Tarpon Springs.

Finding a way to cope with gas costs can be tricky.

At Short Moves, a St. Petersburg moving company, "We had to raise our rates, which did affect our booking somewhat so we had less work," said owner George Burns.

Burns said the company spent $50,578 for fuel in 2005, compared to $41,662 for the previous year, more than a 21 percent increase.

Some people may be attempting to save money by using public transportation. Ridership on HARTline in Hillsborough County topped 10-million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2005, a 13 percent increase.

Laskoski thought gasoline prices would actually drop about this time, because nationwide demand has seemed steady, and the oil supply has been too, especially with some hurricane-damaged refineries coming back on line.

Instead, prices have crept up. Laskoski declined to predict whether they would climb to $3 this summer, but "at the same time I have to say that that would not be uncharted territory."

Part of the reason oil and gas futures increased Thursday was uncertainty in oil-producing nations such as Iran, which is facing opposition from the United States and other countries for its nuclear program, and Nigeria, where rebel attacks have knocked out 27 percent of output.

Many consumers interviewed on Thursday groused about the way oil industry profits have skyrocketed, at the same time that drivers have had to dig deeper.

Williams, the economist, offered an additional perspective: "If everyone in the U.S. drove 10 percent less, we'd be probably below $2 a gallon."

These days, that sounds like a bargain.

- Times staff writer Rick Gershman contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

SAVING GASOLINE

To avoid extra weight, don't top off your tank.

Combine errands to reduce the number of trips.

For any stop lasting more than a minute, shut off the engine.

Drive more slowly. The 20 miles per gallon you get at 55 mph becomes only 16 mpg or less at 75 mph.

Remove extra weight from the car.

Avoid using roof racks and remove when not in use.

Use cruise control on highway trips.

Using the air conditioner when driving more than 40 mph uses less fuel than having windows open.

Underinflated tires can decrease fuel economy.

Car pool.