Pump prices on the go Increase: Better rack up the miles before the cost of gas creeps up again.

The Intrepid Commuter

March 30, 1998

WITH SUMMERLIKE weather beaming down on Baltimore, it's time to break out the essentials -- convertible, shades, Beach Boys tunes -- and cruise the highway like teen-agers. The asphalt is steaming, and Intrepid is ready to hit the road and race the wind.

But we'd better rack up the miles before gas prices -- the lowest, on average, since April 1989 -- begin to creep up again, leaving the tank dry or the wallet empty.

According to the March fuel survey conducted by the Maryland Division of AAA, regular grade self-serve gasoline prices in the state are, on average, 22.7 cents below March 1997 -- $1.03.3 as of this month's sampling of 30 stations statewide. Similar bargains are available for other grades of gasoline.

But low prices might not last long. An agreement March 22 by Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to reduce crude oil output by 2 million barrels a day might drive up prices dramatically within the next few weeks, industry analysts say. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries also announced last week that it plans production cutbacks intended to pull crude prices off their recent nine-year lows.

Roy Littlefield, executive director of the Maryland Service Station Organization, says the results of the agreement probably will force motorists to tighten their wallets.

"It's really hard to predict," said Littlefield. "But a lot of industry experts are predicting an increase of 12 to 13 cents within the next three weeks."

Littlefield, whose group represents more than 1,400 service stations in the state, said "a glut in the market, the mild winter" -- as well as competition -- contributed to lowered prices in March.

But as crude oil prices start rising, gas stations will pay higher wholesale prices, and some are likely to lose profit by trying to stay competitive. "When the prices go up, the dealers try to hold back" from raising retail prices, said Littlefield. "But the bottom line is they'll go out of business if they hold out too long."

In spite of the predicted rise, summer gasoline prices might be lower than they were last summer, according to Sharon Perry, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"Even if the prices do go up, they won't be as bad as last year," when prices were "considerably higher," said Perry.

Motorists have mixed views.

Denise Nugent of Arnold, who filled up at a busy Texaco on Ritchie Highway last week, said she has noticed a gasoline price decrease. But she doubted that prices will make a difference.

"They go up every summer," she told Intrepid, shrugging off the phenomenon.

Bob Monaco, who was doing spring car-cleaning at Cockeysville Exxon at York and Warren roads, said he's seen 97-cent regular grade gas somewhere.

"I like the lower prices," said Monaco. But will the summer price jump be worth complaining about? "I can't control it," he said, while vacuuming his Toyota.

Some motorists aren't so easygoing, however.

Paul Giordano, who drives a big, red Ford Club Wagon with double gas tanks, said he is prepared for the increase, but doesn't relish the prospect.

"This happens every summer and over the holidays," said Giordano, while soaping his Ford's front window at an Amoco station shadowed by the new Ravens Stadium off Russell Street. "People don't think that a couple of pennies will make a difference, but they do. The gas stations kind of get you coming and going."

Average March gas prices

SELF-SERVICE

Price per gallon .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Change since last month

Regular $1.03.3 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Down 8.5 cents

Mid-grade $1.18.5 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Down 4.8 cents

Premium $1.25.3 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Down 4.5 cents

Diesel $1.23.9 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Down 3.1 cents

FULL-SERVICE

Price per gallon .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Change since last month

Regular $1.44.6 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Up 3.9 cents

Mid-grade $1.53.0 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...Up 3.5 cents

Premium $1.61.5 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Up 5.0 cents

Sample size for full-serve diesel was too small to be representative.

SOURCE: The Maryland Division of AAA Mid-Atlantic March 1998 Fuel Survey, based on a sample of 30 stations across Maryland, excluding Prince George's, Charles and Montgomery counties.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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