A Royal Cab driver, who prefers to be called simply Cosby, had a friendly wager going with the cashier at a Merit gas station on Eastern Avenue in southeast Baltimore.
Cosby was betting yesterday that he couldn't fill his tank for less than $10.
He lost the bet, but drove away happy -- the winner in a month-long price war among several filling stations along the Eastern Avenue corridor, just east of Francis Scott Key Medical Center.
At Merit, which is leading the war, regular unleaded gas was selling for $1.189 a gallon at the self-service pumps yesterday and was expected to drop further today. Medium-grade gas was being sold for $1.339 a gallon and premium for $1.389, some of the lowest prices in the state.
For Cosby, the low Merit price represented a gold mine that brought nothing but smiles. After months of seeing gasoline prices steadily on the increase, finally he could get relief.
"Being a cab driver, I'm always driving around looking for a good price," he said. "I'm the one that has to pay the rental fee on the car and the gas fee, too. When I get money back from $10, that's always good news."
No less happy was Robert Mechalske, who was filling up across the street from Merit at a Crown filling station where regular gas likewise was selling for $1.189 a gallon.
Mechalske said that, as a copy machine service technician, he gets ample opportunity to compare gasoline prices in the area.
"I drove by here yesterday and said to myself, 'The next time I get gas, I'll make sure I'm on Eastern Avenue,' " he said.
Similar prices were posted at a nearby Amoco. An Exxon station also in the vicinity was keeping its prices at $1.319 a gallon for regular gas.
Industry experts say the Eastern Avenue price wars are nothing new, and are common in "gasoline alleys" where several stations are in close proximity and the competition is stiff.
Still, such wars have been rare in the region since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August, when gasoline prices nationwide increased precipitously. The trend appears to be reversing, and not only along Eastern Avenue.
Statewide, the average gasoline price has declined 7 to 10 cents a gallon since December, according to a report being released today by the Maryland chapter of the American Automobile Association (AAA).
At self-serve pumps, the average gas prices were $1.335 for a gallon of unleaded regular, $1.43 for a gallon of medium grade and $1.534 for a gallon of premium, the report states.
Average prices for full service gas were $1.566 for regular, $1.666 for medium grade and $1.727 for premium.
Those prices were high when compared with the national average.
In its weekly report released yesterday, the national headquarters for AAA reported that average prices at pumps in the United States hit their lowest level since the Iraqi invasion.
The average nationwide price for a gallon of self-serve unleaded regular gasoline was $1.267 according to the AAA's weekly survey. The price was the lowest recorded by AAA since Aug. 20, when a gallon of self-serve unleaded averaged $1.237, but still 19.2 cents a gallon higher than the price on Aug. 1, the day before the Iraqi invasion.
Barring an all-out war in the Middle East that could further upset stability in the oil market, price wars such as the one on Eastern Avenue may produce the greatest gas savings to be found.
Susan Fortney, manager of the Eastern Avenue Merit, said the owner of the station started lowering prices Dec. 7, shortly after the federal gasoline tax was raised 5 cents a gallon.
The tax, she said, hit her station "pretty hard." Sales dropped dramatically when the price for a regular gallon of gas hit an all-time high of $1.31, she said.
Thomas Lattanzi, spokesman for Crown Central Petroleum Corp., said the Eastern Avenue pump prices are simply evidence of market competition.
"What [Crown does] is we sell the gasoline at the same price to every dealer in the state of Maryland," Lattanzi said. "If there's a war, if there's a skirmish, if there's competition, it's the dealer out on the street whose setting his pump prices."