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Drivers in go mood over $2 gasoline

It won’t last, but for now, lower prices restore some of the fun of driving.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published October 4, 2006


TAMPA — They say freedom comes at a price. This week it dropped below $2 a gallon, giving America’s drivers a little longer leash.

“Regular $1.98,” read the sign at Hillsborough Avenue and Pistol Range Road, above a Hess gas station painted traffic light green.

Ecstatic drivers took it as a go.

They made plans for Miami and the movies and, in the case of those who drive for a living, the bank, to deposit a little more money.

Jeff Stuck, 42, of East Lake took advantage of that price drop Wednesday. Gas, he said, “seems to be the lifeblood of the American spirit.”

It was spirit subdued by gas prices that neared $3 a gallon in the bay area on Sept. 7, 2005.

High gas prices made Stuck take his son to fewer blockbuster films. They bought fewer Oreo cookies at the store. They went to the clothing store less often, said Stuck, wearing a gray T-shirt with a hole.

Growing up in Detroit, the capitol of cars, Stuck thought little of gas prices. He routinely put $20 worth in his 1973 Camaro and went cruising.

But the prices are now linked to his livelihood. He is an Acura car technician. He feels held back when prices soar. America is a land of highways and spread-out subdivisions, making gas essential and, lately, expensive.

The price drop created three-deep lines at all 12 pumps for much of the day Tuesday at the RaceTrac station on W Hillsborough Avenue, where fuel was as cheap as $1.96 a gallon. A gas tanker waited nearby to restock.
People were elated, but skeptical.

“Things are finally breaking,” Stuck said, who got his gas at Hess. “It’s not as hard as it has been. I just hope it’s not a pseudo-relief. I mean elections are coming up. Why now? Is it because we haven’t had hurricanes?”

That’s part of the reason, said Randy Bly, spokesman of AAA Auto Club South. But it’s also because the price of a barrel of crude oil now hovers under $60 compared with $78 at the height of the summer’s Israel-Lebanon conflict.

It’s because the busy summer travel season ended early, and the federal government no longer requires costly additives and special fuel refinement to reduce summertime pollution.

The market’s also happy with recent news: Oil reserves have been found under the Gulf of Mexico, and an Indian corporation plans to build the world’s largest refinery. There’s also a sense in the market that the economy is slowing and gas will be in less demand.

Oil prices have dipped across the globe, experts said, not simply in the United States.

Nationally, the record high for a gallon of gasoline came Sept. 5, 2005, when regular cost $3.057. Hurricane Katrina carried much of the blame. In Florida, the all-time high for a gallon came Aug. 10 when regular cost $3.026. Bly blamed the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

Tuesday, the national average for a gallon of regular was $2.295. Florida averaged $2.344 a gallon. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area averaged $2.231 — the lowest in the state .

Bly warned that the downward trend won’t last forever, and Doug MacIntyre, Energy Information Administration senior oil market analyst, agreed.

“Right now,” MacIntyre said, “the gasoline market side of things is about as low as it can go.”
Hurricanes, another Middle Eastern flare up and wintertime heating oil demands could send people digging deeper into their wallets.

That’s why Adelaide Fountain, 64, of Tampa gassed up as soon as she could Tuesday. A woman with a tan and cutoff jean shorts, Fountain skipped the beaches she loves for a local pool because of high gas prices. She has visited her daughter’s home less often because of the distance. But the price break could bring her to Brandon more.

Maureen Abel, 44, of Tampa also filled up. She stopped visiting friends in Miami when gas prices approached $3. She’s headed back this weekend.

All around the Hess station, spirits seemed up.

It makes sense, said Michael Marsden, who has written about car culture for Motor Trend.
Gas prices affect America’s psyche, said Marsden, a vice president at Wisconsin’s St. Norbert College.

“For 100-plus years,” he said, “we have enjoyed ultimate freedom through the American automobile, both figuratively and literally.”

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 4, 2006, 21:33:31]


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