Vacation from high gas prices

Costly additive not required on Shore

savings can top 40 cents

July 26, 2006|By CHRIS GUY | CHRIS GUY,SUN REPORTER

CAMBRIDGE -- Making the second trip from her Howard County home to the beach in less than a week, it didn't take Linda Smith long to come to terms with this summer's gasoline crunch - or at least to make it as painless as possible.

After paying more than $3 a gallon at stations around Clarksville, Smith whipped her minivan into the Sailwinds BP station here, the first place she saw yesterday selling regular for $2.75.

It was not wishful thinking or her imagination: Gas is definitely cheaper on the Eastern Shore.

"No, I don't usually plan ahead where to stop, but I sure did this time," said Smith, who was hauling her three children and her father, Calvin Bassler, to a family vacation in Ocean City. "This is really a lot cheaper."

Like Smith, other vacationers and motorists are finding prices as low as $2.67 a gallon on the Shore, 42 cents less than the $3.09 average price statewide, and also far less than the national average of $3.

State officials and travel experts say there is some logic to it. Prices, they say, are driven by many factors, including the cost of crude oil on world markets, refinery costs and zone pricing, which includes costs such as rents, wages and competition in local markets.

An important variable for Maryland residents is the cost of pollution-control additives required in the "reformulated" gasoline sold in counties that have failed to meet federal clean air standards, mostly in the Baltimore-Washington area. The additives include ethanol, which burns cleaner but costs more than alternatives.

Nevertheless, many motorists wonder about the extent of the disparity - $3.19 for regular gas in parts of metropolitan Baltimore, compared with $2.79 in Easton, where the price has held steady for a couple of weeks.

The differences are especially rankling for Marylanders on the western side of the Bay Bridge.

Alex O'Hearn was filling up yesterday at a station on West Street in Annapolis, where prices have been about $3.15. He had been on the Shore the day before and noticed that gas was "a lot cheaper" there.

"I thought it was kind of ridiculous for them to have cheaper gas. We talk about how all these environment and economic consequences are affecting us when they're really not," O'Hearn said.

Adam H. Goldstein of Annapolis said he missed the prices he saw on the Shore a couple of weeks ago but that the higher cost at home was fair.

"There's more people in these counties, and we all need to breathe," he said.

Tom Ripley, who was taking a day trip from Frederick to St. Michaels in his Dodge Durango SUV yesterday, figured he was getting a pretty good deal topping off his tank with $2.98-a-gallon gas at a station just west of the Bay Bridge yesterday - until he was told that stations in Talbot County were cheaper.

He was already regretting having filled up before leaving home.

"I guess that was stupid," Ripley said. "It was $3.09, and it takes 30 gallons to fill this."

One of the reasons for the high prices is apparently the increasing concern about the safety of the chemical additive MTBE. Because of problems with that chemical, refiners have begun to substitute ethanol, which is more expensive.

Crossing the Bay Bridge does not by itself bring relief from high prices. Queen Anne's and Kent counties are required to use the ethanol mix. Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester counties and the Lower Shore are not.

In Western Maryland, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties are also free to sell conventional gasoline.

"It's the difference between the conventional on the Shore and Western Maryland and the reformulated gasoline pretty much everywhere else," said Bob Crawford, who has been monitoring gasoline prices for 30 years in the state comptroller's office.

"It works out that adding ethanol costs 35 to 40 cents," Crawford said. "There are some other factors, but that's pretty much your price difference."

Among the other factors in the price of gas is taxes, but those haven't changed for many years and don't affect the intrastate disparity. The state collects 23.5 cents a gallon, and the federal tax is 18.4 cents.

The range of prices has consumers patrolling for the best deal, said Gina Selander, who owns a Crown convenience store on Kent Island, where regular gas was going for $3.07 a gallon yesterday.

"Everybody is price-conscious, and they're using credit cards much more this year when they fill up," she said. "There's no doubt that people are shopping around for price more than ever."

In Ocean City, prices have been hovering near $2.77 lately, said Lloyd Martin, a City Council member who has owned a Coastal Highway 7-Eleven for nearly 30 years.

"Of course, I remember when gas was 75 cents and people said if it went over a dollar they'd have to get rid of their cars," Martin said. "It always comes down to a supply and demand thing. It's good for the tourists as they leave the beach for home. We're selling a whole lot of gas."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Alia Malik contributed to this article.

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