Setting records daily at gas pumps in Md.

Prices: The state average of $1.73 per gallon of regular unleaded is a record, and climbing, because there is not enough supply to match global demand.

March 30, 2004|By Meredith Cohn and Lorraine Mirabella | Meredith Cohn and Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

If you're Nick Joya and burn only a few gallons of gas a week in your car, then it's annoying but not a deal-breaker to pay $1.76 per gallon, about 3 cents above the average in Maryland - where prices have set new records each day for the past week.

Joya filled up yesterday at a BP in Nottingham Square in White Marsh, and it wouldn't have mattered had he driven to the Exxon station a couple of blocks away, because it was also $1.76 a gallon.

But if he had come on the weekend, BP's owner, Sam Kim, would have knocked off 7 cents a gallon. And if he'd driven to the Citgo in Northwest Baltimore, he could have saved 9 cents a gallon.

Cars, SUVs, and a few taxis jammed that station's lot yesterday at Reisterstown Road and Northern Parkway, keeping the 12 pumps mostly occupied. Most customers said they'd come for cheap gas, relatively speaking, at a station reputed to be one of the lowest-priced in town.

Gasoline may come mostly from the same places, but by the time it's refined, transported, taxed and pumped, retail prices can range more than 10 cents a gallon in a metropolitan area. The reasons vary from the deals struck among dealers and suppliers, location and brand, but each little increase is becoming more and more important to consumers who are captive to their cars and now have to budget more for transportation.

"A penny makes a difference," said Mildred Burston, 52, a regular Citgo customer who bypasses Crown and Shell stations closer to her Lochearn home. "It's not right we have to pay all these high prices. We have no choice."

The state average of $1.73 per gallon of regular unleaded and the national average of $1.75 are records, if they are unadjusted for inflation, and still climbing because there is not enough supply to match global demand. With the increase in driving during the summer, prices could go even higher, experts warn.

Those who depend on gas for a living and those who watch pennies are already looking for bargains. That costs business at the BP and attracts drivers to the Citgo, even though the station owners and others say they make no money selling gas.

But some drivers say they have neither the time nor inclination to shop around.

"I spend $20 to $25 every time I fill the tank," said Joya, who drives his Toyota Camry about two days a week to White Marsh from his home in Severna Park, where he thinks gas prices are even higher. "I've noticed the prices, but I don't really have a choice around here."

Other days, Joya is in a company car from CarMax, for which he purchases vehicles. He said gas prices - on the rise nationally since the beginning of the year - have affected his professional buying habits. He's bringing in fewer gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, minivans and trucks, and more fuel-efficient, smaller cars to match customer demands. He noticed the car-buying trend about a month and a half ago.

Others, with commercial vehicles, must shop around for gas.

Marvin Hoffman, who drives a taxi from the Inner Harbor to Canton to Dundalk, said he prefers to fill up at the Citgo when he can. He's now spending $125 a week on fuel, filling up once or twice a day. "It's about the lowest around in the city," he said. "The costs are pretty high, and every day the gas prices change."

And some have abandoned driving the gas-guzzlers. Roddie Wood, a day-care operator filling his tank at the Citgo yesterday, said he stopped driving his SUV, a Lincoln Navigator, except on weekends, about two weeks ago, when a fill-up began costing $40, twice a week.

"I couldn't stand it," he said.

The AAA Mid-Atlantic auto club reports that the average price for gas varies around the state, and many regions surpassed record high prices last week. Maryland topped its May 2001 record of $1.71 per gallon of regular unleaded March 23.

Compared with the new state record of $1.73, gas prices range from $1.63 in Salisbury to $1.72 in Baltimore to $1.76 in the Washington suburbs.

The differences can be attributed to competition, whether the fuel is a more expensive brand name, if the station depends on gas for profit, rent the stations pay to franchise owners and environmentally based fuel requirements and state taxes, according to Amanda Knittle, a spokeswoman for AAA.

"When we give tips, we stress to people to be aware and shop around, just as you would when shopping for the best piece of clothing or car," she said. "You don't have to drive miles and miles, but while you're doing errands, look at prices. You can see a 5- to 10-cent difference on one street sometimes."

Station owners say that once they pay rent to a franchise owner such as BP, Shell or Exxon and they pay a credit card company for each transaction at the pump, they may lose money on gas. Most profit from cigarettes and convenience items or auto repair.

"We don't make much profit, and when gas prices go up, we sell less so we make even less," said Kim, the BP owner.

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