The Price of Utopia

January 06, 1995

Utopias and free market economies don't mix. You didn't have to study the rise and fall of communism to know that. Just check the corner pump prices in Columbia.

According to a recent survey by The Sun, gasoline prices in Columbia were up to 10 cents a gallon more than at a string of stations along commercially laden U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. Some Columbians say they travel as far away as Silver Spring in search of cheaper fuel. But unless higher prices begin driving a substantial number of motorists out in search of cheaper gas, don't expect things to change much in the planned city. Columbia gas stations will continue to charge significantly more than their counterparts in surrounding communities.

Apparently, a decision by the Rouse Co. to limit the number of gas stations in Columbia to one per village has a lot to do with the higher prices. Limits on competition suppress the incentive to hold down prices. Station operators also complain that Columbia rents are higher. Also, some dealers say that Exxon, which owns five of the 11 stations in Columbia, charges them more for the gasoline it supplies inside Columbia than elsewhere in Howard County. Exxon executives refused to comment.

It's another case of Columbia residents footing the bill for their own affluence, whether in being singled out by petroleum companies for their ability to pay more, or in exchange for aesthetically pleasing communities that aren't overrun by garish gas stations. It is probably of little consolation that an 8 cent-a-gallon increase that was expected to hit Jan. 1 didn't quite materialize. Officials at the Greater Washington-Maryland Service Station and Automotive Repair Association say the actual increase has been closer to 5 cents a gallon -- attributed to the federal government's demand for cleaner fuel.

In the final analysis, market forces seem the major determinant in gasoline prices in Columbia. Where competition is restricted, prices usually rise. The Rouse Co.'s quest for utopia does not come without a penalty. And for now, Columbia residents appear willing to pay it.

Not that the alternative -- a gas-station alley in Columbia -- would be a welcome solution. A steep price would come with that, too: A loss of ambience that has always distinguished Columbia from other suburbs in the region.

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