June 3, 2008 in City

$4 in the rearview mirror

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Tags:gas
Rajah Bose photo

The Conoco Piggy Mart in downtown Spokane broke the $4-per- gallon barrier on Monday.
(Full-size photo)

Behold the power of a penny.

After days of lingering at $3.99, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has breached the $4 mark at some Spokane-area stations. That contributed to a new citywide average price of $3.93 Sunday and Monday – a record – as measured in a survey of stations by AAA and the Oil Price Information Service.

The increase might have been largely symbolic; unlike two years ago, gas prices in Spokane remain below state and national averages. But it’s still enough to cause some drivers to cut back or seek deals.

Tonasket, Wash., resident Susan Finney set up doctor appointments here over two days and stayed in a hotel so she’d only have to make the roughly 340-mile trip once, she said.

“There, it would cost me $58,” said Finney, 62, checking out the damage after filling up her silver Subaru. “I try to keep it filled, because I know tomorrow it’s just going to go up.”

Gas prices Monday averaged more than $4 in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Regular gas cost an average of $4.15 a gallon in Washington state and $3.98 a gallon nationally, according to AAA.

Americans have passed price benchmarks before, with little effect, said Tim Hamilton, executive director of Automotive United Trades Organization.

“We would see these emotional barriers,” Hamilton said, “but we continued to grow in our consumption and addiction to gasoline, diesel.”

Fuel remained slightly cheaper in Coeur d’Alene on Monday but still set a record, with regular costing an average of $3.83.

A gallon of regular cost $4.10 at the Conoco station at West Third Avenue and Monroe Street on Monday afternoon.

“The price of gas is going up, what’s new?” a station manager said, declining further comment.

Another downtown station was selling regular at $4.19 Monday, according to www.spokanegasprices.com.

While several stations charging near $4 appeared to do slow business Monday, members of warehouse club Costco flocked to its pumps in North Spokane. Gas at that station cost $3.79 for regular and $3.99 for premium.

Retired Spokane resident Merle Wyer, 63, copes with buying gas on a fixed income.

“I mean, we can’t stay home just because of the price of gas,” he said. “Even if I have to drive two miles just to save 10 cents.”

Nationally, the cost of a barrel of light sweet crude for July delivery rose 41 cents, to settle at $127.76 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Earlier Monday, oil futures fell nearly $10 below a trading record of $135.09 reached last month.

The hit to drivers’ pocketbooks may continue, however, regardless of what oil futures do. That’s because gas supplies have been falling even as summer driving demand picks up. Demand is lower than it was at this time last year, according to Energy Department data and a number of driver surveys in recent days. But gas is always in greater demand during the summer.

Continued declines in oil prices would remove one of the reasons gas prices are near $4 on a national basis. And that could lead to lower prices as the summer wears on. Gasoline typically peaks in price near Memorial Day, then declines over the summer.

Besides affecting drivers, current conditions are tough on mom-and-pop gas stations, too, said Hamilton, whose McCleary, Wash.-based organization represents independent stations. Operators make about the same profit regardless of sales price, and credit card fees of about 3 percent and taxes cut into those margins, Hamilton said.

Budget-conscious consumers are buying less premium-grade fuel – which carries a greater profit margin – causing owners to increase regular per-gallon prices, he said. And customers are cutting back on convenience store purchases, car washes and other sideline businesses.

“We are in deep doo-doo, and that’s the only way you can call it,” Hamilton said.

Kent Votaw, co-owner of Go Green Electric Cars in Post Falls, sees signs of changing habits in the demand for used vehicles that aren’t gas guzzlers.

“There is such a push right now, I’m scrambling trying to find good-gas-mileage cars,” he said. “The auctions around here are so jammed with SUVs and trucks.”

He’s sold about 30 electric vehicles, which cost about $10,000 to $19,000, since opening last fall, he said.

“The fact is starting to hit home that they can (make) the drive to the store and to the school and stuff like that in an electric vehicle and keep their SUV to running around on the weekend or going on major trips,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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