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Motorists get pumped about prices

Tue., Nov. 4, 2008, midnight

Gas below $2 a gallon in Idaho

Gasoline fell below $2 a gallon at some North Idaho stations Monday – a buck less than it was a month ago and half the price drivers paid during the peak of the summer travel season.

“I was shocked,” said Tom Reed, of Rathdrum, as he filled his Ford Taurus at Coeur d’Alene’s Fred Meyer, where club-card customers paid $1.87 a gallon.

AAA, which monitors gas prices, listed the average price of regular gasoline in Coeur d’Alene at $2.25 Monday. In Spokane, where consumers pay a higher state fuel tax, the average price was $2.56, with some stations as low as $2.29.

Just 27 days ago, The Spokesman-Review reported that gas at some Coeur d’Alene stations had fallen below $3. It seemed a bargain, considering that prices topped $4 a gallon nationwide in July.

Those summer prices prompted many Americans to cancel vacations. And they came just as many Washington school districts were planning their budgets for the current school year, leaving many administrators despondent.

Before the economy crumbled in recent months, “hardly anybody was considered serious if they were expecting a dramatic drop in prices,” said Allan Jones, director of pupil transportation at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

For every penny increase in diesel costs, state officials warned at the time, taxpayers would be on the hook for an additional $100,000 in fuel costs to run Washington’s 9,300 school buses. High fuel prices are one reason seven Washington school districts are operating under “binding conditions,” meaning they’ve got so little money set aside that the state is overseeing their finances. Typically, one or two districts are in such trouble.

So it’s very good news that the average price of West Coast diesel has fallen from its peak of $4.90 a gallon in July to $3.05 Monday, Jones said. But taxpayers should keep in mind that October’s average price was still $1.14 more than in October 2006.

If current prices seem low, “it’s just that we’ve gotten used to ridiculous prices,” he said.

And school officials have no idea how long – or if – prices will continue to fall.

“Who knows what’s going to happen,” said Brian Liberg, transportation director for West Valley School District.

Drivers appear equally cautious. Among those who lined up Monday at the Coeur d’Alene Costco were some who brought gas containers to fill with $1.94 regular gasoline or $2.14 premium. A few said they expect prices to increase once today’s election is over.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” said Chuck Donnenwirth, of Pinehurst, Idaho, filling his Dodge Intrepid with gas at a Holiday Station. Donnenwirth said his family stopped eating out when a fill-up cost $50.

Gary Stone, of Post Falls, suspects the price drop is simply a matter of supply and demand. But whatever the reason, Stone said he’s happy to pay $40 rather than $80 to fill his Chevrolet Silverado.

“It’ll give me a little more freedom,” he said.

Richard Conkey, of Athol, said he and his wife didn’t take any trips this year because it cost $60 to fill the tank on his Dodge Dakota. The price has dropped just in time for him to travel to Portland to meet his newest grandchild.

“Since I’m retired, it helps,” Conkey said.

While drivers are getting a break, local airline passengers should not expect one.

The three airlines that carry 64 percent of the passengers into and out of Spokane International Airport – Southwest, Alaska and Horizon – did not impose fuel surcharges when prices peaked.

But Alaska and Horizon did add a $25 charge for a second checked bag, which many airlines used as a surrogate for a fuel surcharge, said spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey. Only 10 percent of the airlines’ passengers check two pieces of luggage, she said.

“Baggage equals fuel use,” she said.

Lindsey said the fees remain in place and fuel prices would have to stay low for some time before airlines recoup the money spent the first half of the year.

Southwest did not add a baggage fee.

Staff writer Bert Caldwell contributed to this report.


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