Fill the tank? Not these days

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To lessen the sting of soaring gas prices, Thomas Addison has been fueling his Ford Explorer SUV a quarter-tank at a time. But with the price of gasoline topping $2 a gallon, he says, he can't go on.

"I'm ready to trade the truck in for something that's good on gas," said Addison, 26, a grant processor for the federal government. "I can't afford to fill up" at a cost of $30, he said.

While Addison and other motorists struggle to adjust to record-high prices, Maryland gas dealers complained yesterday that they're feeling the pain as much as - or even more than - consumers.

"We are losing volume every day," said Naeen Pasha, part-owner of Harborplace Shell on Russell Street, who said consumers' belt-tightening has also cut into his station's convenience store sales.

"They're not filling their tanks. They have limited amounts of money and are not able to spend money in the store. This summer, we don't think we'll make any money."

So it goes across the region, as gas prices hit an all-time high driven by record-high crude oil prices and concern that gasoline demand will continue to outstrip capacity. The average cost of a gallon of regular was $2.02 yesterday in the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Maryland, the U.S. Energy Department reported.

Dealers say budget-conscious motorists are shopping around more and filling up less, cutting into volume and squeezing already tight margins.

And consumers are taking steps to deflect some of the increase: limiting driving, switching to mass transit, sharing rides, forgoing air conditioning, working overtime and downgrading from premium to regular gasoline.

In Columbia - an area that has had some of central Maryland's highest gas prices in recent weeks - a gallon of regular went for $2.17 yesterday at the Exxon station just off Interstate 95 on Route 108.

Carra Cote swears she would have pulled out of the station when she saw the price, if her gas light hadn't been showing empty.

"It's the most I've ever paid for gas," said Cote. "I actually am not going to put a full tank in. That's too much."

Cote, who lives in Washington and frequently drives to Baltimore and Philadelphia for her work as a free-lance business consultant, said yesterday's prices were the highest she has seen between the two cities. Already, she has cut back on some socializing with friends because of high travel expense. But current prices might require more drastic changes.

"It used to be that driving was the cheapest way to go," said Cote, who spent $23 for about 10 gallons of gas. "Now I'm going to have to start taking the train or figuring something else out. It's just too much money. It's unbelievable."

George Motz, 31, who just completed a master's degree program at George Mason University, said he and his wife have canceled plans to drive through Canada this summer.

"It's too expensive," he said yesterday, while filling up at the Shell station on Russell Street. Instead, he said, "We're thinking about flying to Mexico."

Just a few pennies' difference in price prompted motorists in Catonsville to line up for gas yesterday, reminding some of them of the oil crisis and gas lines of the early 1970s. At the Sam's Club on Route 40, the line stretched some seven cars deep to buy gas for $1.97 per gallon - $1.94 for members.

"It's hitting me real hard," said Lahai Swaray, in line at Sam's to fill his Dodge Durango. "I cannot afford to be paying cash right now. That's why I had to come to Sam's and put it on a credit card."

He also has downgraded from premium to regular gas to save money and is working extra hours at his job at Red Cross off Liberty Road.

Scott Morgan, a Pigtown resident and truck driver, said he has cut back on his personal driving. He drives his year-old Nissan Maxima only to and from work at a building supply company in Halethorpe and to the store on Saturday.

"It's crazy," Morgan, 30, said while filling up at the Shell station on Russell Street. "I don't drive like I used to all over the place."

"Paying for gas, it's just rough," said David Linder, 28, a maintenance manager for Central Parking Systems, who recently moved from Philadelphia to Hamilton.

Linder said he would consider taking the bus if he didn't have use of a company pickup truck, for which he pays a portion, about $30 of a total $60 fill-up these days. He said he has cut back on some of the extra spending money he used for going out on dates.

Even carpooling isn't dulling the pain of higher prices for some.

Kiran Thapa has been trying to share trips with his wife, who runs the Yeti restaurant in Baltimore, when their schedules permit. That way, they can leave one of their two cars at home.

"I can reduce the price a little bit, not much," said Thapa, a computer technician who commutes from Mount Washington to Westminster. "There's no option. You have to pay it."

Others greeted the high gas prices with equanimity.

"I'm just doing what I've got to do," said Wendy Bickford, 23, a free-lance clarinetist who has not altered her plans to drive to Colorado this summer to study music. "If I have to drive, I drive."

Susan Gillette of Homeland said she hopes the higher prices teach her 18-year-old daughter a lesson in conserving energy.

Another mother noted that the higher prices have had one side benefit: family togetherness. Mary Murphy, a Catonsville resident, said her sons, ages 17 and 20, have been hitching rides with each other to save some gas money.

"I said to my husband, 'Isn't it nice that they're hanging out more together?'" she said. "I hear them saying, 'Where are you going? I'll go with you.'"

Price up, sales down

Yesterday, dealers said they dread rising prices as much as consumers.

Pasha, the Shell dealer, said his supplier raised prices by 5 cents per gallon Friday.

He said he has recently been selling about 1,000 gallons less each day than usual: 5,200 gallons, down from 6,100 gallons. Sales in his convenience store have also dipped by 5 percent. He offers customers 5 cents off per gallon on Tuesdays to try to spark sales.

Amarjeet Singh, the owner of an Exxon station on Russell Street, said his volume has also dropped by about 1,000 gallons a day.

"If your outside [gas] sales go down, your inside [store] sales go down," he said. "Our margins are going down," from 6 to 7 cents per gallon, to 4 to 5 cents per gallon. "In this business, every gallon counts, every penny counts."

Jeff Dolch, the owner of the BP station at the corner of St. Paul Street and Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, said that he has seen no difference in customers' buying habits but that he also has no nearby competition. He was charging $2.01 per gallon yesterday.

"You see people come in and get gas and they make faces," said Dolch, whose family has run the station for 31 years.

At the BP station in Columbia Crossing, cashier Chris Reid said even he was surprised when the station bumped up prices twice in a single day. The price rose to $2.04 per gallon Friday at 9 a.m. and a couple of hours later to $2.06 per gallon.

"I never saw it go up twice in one day," he said.

By midday yesterday, a steady flow of customers at that station was seemingly undeterred by the prices.

"I haven't really changed my routine, but I probably should," said Dianne Hall, a Baltimore resident who commutes to Columbia and was filling her Toyota Corolla at the BP. "The gas prices are going up, but the salaries aren't. It's really putting a hurting on my pocketbook."

Nearby, Don Wilson pumped premium gas into his Audi. "I think it's ridiculous, but what can you do?" he said. "Am I going to stop driving? No. If I can't afford it, I'll sell my expensive car and get a bike." Since he lives in Columbia and works only about eight miles away in Elkridge, he needs to fill up only about every week and a half, he said.

"It's 33 bucks now," he said. "I remember when it was 25."

Wide range

Darin Hurt-Ritenburg's bill reached almost $50 yesterday as he filled his work van that holds more than 30 gallons. Traveling between Virginia and White Marsh for his employer, Tricorp Amusements Inc., Hurt-Ritenburg said he has seen a wide range of gas prices: still well under $2 in Virginia, with White Marsh prices typically 20 cents above everyone else.

Beth Bengermino, who lives in Woodstock with her husband and their two children, said the gas prices haven't hit her family very hard because she travels only locally in her Isuzu Trooper and her husband works a half-mile from home.

But Bengermino knows that the situation would be far different for her family if they did more driving.

"I think if I were going down into D.C. or commuting into Baltimore, it would be huge," she said. "It hasn't been huge for us. We feel lucky."

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