Fill the tank? Not these days

May 18, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella and June Arney | Lorraine Mirabella and June Arney,SUN STAFF

To lessen the sting of soaring gas prices, Thomas Addison has been fueling his Ford Explorer SUV a quarter-tank at a time. But with the price of gasoline topping $2 a gallon, he says, he can't go on.

"I'm ready to trade the truck in for something that's good on gas," said Addison, 26, a grant processor for the federal government. "I can't afford to fill up" at a cost of $30, he said.

While Addison and other motorists struggle to adjust to record-high prices, Maryland gas dealers complained yesterday that they're feeling the pain as much as - or even more than - consumers.

"We are losing volume every day," said Naeen Pasha, part-owner of Harborplace Shell on Russell Street, who said consumers' belt-tightening has also cut into his station's convenience store sales.

"They're not filling their tanks. They have limited amounts of money and are not able to spend money in the store. This summer, we don't think we'll make any money."

So it goes across the region, as gas prices hit an all-time high driven by record-high crude oil prices and concern that gasoline demand will continue to outstrip capacity. The average cost of a gallon of regular was $2.02 yesterday in the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Maryland, the U.S. Energy Department reported.

Dealers say budget-conscious motorists are shopping around more and filling up less, cutting into volume and squeezing already tight margins.

And consumers are taking steps to deflect some of the increase: limiting driving, switching to mass transit, sharing rides, forgoing air conditioning, working overtime and downgrading from premium to regular gasoline.

In Columbia - an area that has had some of central Maryland's highest gas prices in recent weeks - a gallon of regular went for $2.17 yesterday at the Exxon station just off Interstate 95 on Route 108.

Carra Cote swears she would have pulled out of the station when she saw the price, if her gas light hadn't been showing empty.

"It's the most I've ever paid for gas," said Cote. "I actually am not going to put a full tank in. That's too much."

Cote, who lives in Washington and frequently drives to Baltimore and Philadelphia for her work as a free-lance business consultant, said yesterday's prices were the highest she has seen between the two cities. Already, she has cut back on some socializing with friends because of high travel expense. But current prices might require more drastic changes.

"It used to be that driving was the cheapest way to go," said Cote, who spent $23 for about 10 gallons of gas. "Now I'm going to have to start taking the train or figuring something else out. It's just too much money. It's unbelievable."

George Motz, 31, who just completed a master's degree program at George Mason University, said he and his wife have canceled plans to drive through Canada this summer.

"It's too expensive," he said yesterday, while filling up at the Shell station on Russell Street. Instead, he said, "We're thinking about flying to Mexico."

Just a few pennies' difference in price prompted motorists in Catonsville to line up for gas yesterday, reminding some of them of the oil crisis and gas lines of the early 1970s. At the Sam's Club on Route 40, the line stretched some seven cars deep to buy gas for $1.97 per gallon - $1.94 for members.

"It's hitting me real hard," said Lahai Swaray, in line at Sam's to fill his Dodge Durango. "I cannot afford to be paying cash right now. That's why I had to come to Sam's and put it on a credit card."

He also has downgraded from premium to regular gas to save money and is working extra hours at his job at Red Cross off Liberty Road.

Scott Morgan, a Pigtown resident and truck driver, said he has cut back on his personal driving. He drives his year-old Nissan Maxima only to and from work at a building supply company in Halethorpe and to the store on Saturday.

"It's crazy," Morgan, 30, said while filling up at the Shell station on Russell Street. "I don't drive like I used to all over the place."

"Paying for gas, it's just rough," said David Linder, 28, a maintenance manager for Central Parking Systems, who recently moved from Philadelphia to Hamilton.

Linder said he would consider taking the bus if he didn't have use of a company pickup truck, for which he pays a portion, about $30 of a total $60 fill-up these days. He said he has cut back on some of the extra spending money he used for going out on dates.

Even carpooling isn't dulling the pain of higher prices for some.

Kiran Thapa has been trying to share trips with his wife, who runs the Yeti restaurant in Baltimore, when their schedules permit. That way, they can leave one of their two cars at home.

"I can reduce the price a little bit, not much," said Thapa, a computer technician who commutes from Mount Washington to Westminster. "There's no option. You have to pay it."

Others greeted the high gas prices with equanimity.

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