As she pumped $2.95-a-gallon gasoline into her petite Plymouth Sunfire yesterday morning in Bel Air, Kristin Bienert was daring to dream SUV dreams.
Not a huge sport utility vehicle like a Tahoe or an Expedition. But in what Maryland auto dealers can only hope is a leading indicator, a significant drop in the cost of gas in Maryland is prompting the 27-year-old Bel Air woman to consider trading in her fuel-sipping small car for a midsized sport utility vehicle - a thought she wouldn't have entertained a few months ago when prices were flirting with $4 a gallon.
"Now that it's dropping, I'm able to save a little more," she said.
Bienert found herself in the right place at the right time yesterday as she filled her tank for a modest $22. The right place because she was in the northeastern corner of the state, where consumers are enjoying some of the lowest prices. The right time because she pulled up to the pump of the Royal Farms at Routes 22 and 543 just minutes after it cut its price by three cents a gallon to steal a march on arch rival Wawa down the street, where the price lingered at $2.98.
The refreshingly reasonable prices in Bel Air reflect a broader plunge in the statewide average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline. According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, prices fell 23 cents last week and four cents further on Sunday and yesterday, when the state average stood at $3.20.
The average statewide price peaked June 17 at $4.05. A year ago, the average was $2.68 - more than a half-dollar less than the current price.
Within the state, there is more than a dollar's worth of disparity between the highest and lowest prices. According to MarylandGasPrices.com, the lowest prices are clustered in North East and Elkton, where a Valero station had gas at $2.69. Meanwhile, a Shell station in Rockville was reported to be charging $3.76 as prices remained higher in the Washington suburbs than in other parts of the state.
Baltimore-area prices were coming down faster than the statewide figures, with an average of $3.17, according to AAA. The gas prices Web site, however, showed several wholesale clubs in the metro area with prices under $2.90. Some stations in central Baltimore were still charging as much as $3.39.
Paul Fiore, government relations director for the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said the differences in prices around the state are the result of a complex mix of factors - including the level of competition, price zones set by distributors and the formulation of fuels sold in various markets around the state.
Christine Delise, a spokeswoman for AAA in Maryland, said the primary reason for the rapid drop in fuel costs was the plunging price of crude oil - the largest component of gasoline prices - on world markets.
"Crude oil just appears to be in a free-fall," she said, noting that prices fell $9 to $78 a barrel Friday before recovering yesterday to close above $80.
Motorists at the Royal Farms in Bel Air had their own explanations.
To Crista Bauer, a Bel Air nurse, the price fluctuations were all "a scam."
"It always happens around election time that it drops a little," she said. "Right after the election, it'll go back up."
Warren Debelius, a Fallston retiree who keeps detailed notes on his every fill-up, agreed with her prediction. His theory on why prices have fallen now: "George [Bush] is close with the Saudis."
Debelius wasn't sweating too much about the future as he recorded the $21.22 he paid for 9 gallons to fill his 2007 Toyota Yaris in his well-worn pocket notebook. The car gets 36 to 42 mpg on the highway, he said, making his purchase good for what he estimated at 315 miles.
Dawn McVey of Bel Air said she sees the drop as "a temporary fix."
McVey got away with a $23.10 charge for the 7 gallons she needed to top off the 21-gallon tank of her SUV. She said she regularly tops off her tank before it gets halfway empty to avoid seeing the big totals a full tank would cost.
"I'm a half-a-tanker," she said.
Like many consumers, McVey is enjoying the respite but is doubtful it will last. She said it's more likely she'll see a return of $4 gas than a return to the two-buck range.
Lloyd Wolford of Berwick, Pa., was in a more sunny frame of mind - reflecting the fact he was paying less than $50 to fill up a tank that had been costing him $70 to $80. He said that even if gas goes up again, he doesn't expect it to reach its June heights again.
"I don't think we'll ever see it back [to $4]," he said.
His daughter, Sherryl DelColliano of Bel Air, said the price at the Royal Farms had been $3.04 Sunday. She recently moved from San Diego, where prices this summer reached about $4.50, so $2.95 was looking good to her.
Frank Jankowiak, a Bel Air retiree, said that after this summer's price spike, he never expected to see sub-$3 gas again. He attributes the drop to people cutting back their driving - a contention that's supported by federal statistics showing a substantial decrease since last year in the number of vehicle miles traveled.
But the SUV-craving Bienert isn't among those who have cut back.
She said that since she took a job working at her father's company in Dundalk, she's driving even more. Sometimes she and her dad have been car-pooling to save money, she said, but with gas prices falling she might do that less often. And if the brakes on her Sunfire keep giving her problems, she'd love to replace it with a bigger vehicle, even if it guzzles more gas. "Hopefully it doesn't jump up again," she said.