Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Across USA, wave of anger building over gas prices

Across USA, wave of anger building over gas prices
By the staff of USA TODAY

FRONT ROYAL, Va. — The sunrise turns the night sky pink Tuesday as four travelers meet at the Park 'N Ride lot off Interstate 66 on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

A nightmare has brought them together: the price of gasoline, which lists at $2.84 for regular, $2.94 for medium and $3.04 for supreme at the Shell and Exxon stations down the street. Their blue Kia van is bound for Washington, 60 miles away. Today, the one-way trip will cost $10.

Jennifer Sperry, 32, works at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Her mother, Linda Burnett, 51, is bound for the same agency. Regina Sommers, 39, works at a law firm. And Pete Williams, 53, is building manager at the Reagan federal building.

Two weeks ago they faced the inevitable and formed this carpool, which saves them each more than $300 a month and costs them autonomy, convenience and privacy. Sperry and her mother used to drive in together, just the two of them, free to dish and divulge as they pleased. They don't see each other on weekends; that was their time together.

So begins Tuesday, May 2, another day in the great gasoline price spike of 2006. Across the nation, it will be another day of debating, bemoaning, analyzing, comparing and predicting the cost of a liquid vital to the nation's economy, mobility and sanity. Another day when the price of gas will seem as fundamental as the weather.

Everyone will be affected by it, many will complain about it, and a few will do something about it. But almost no one will disagree that Tuesday was like almost every other day of late. Gas prices are driving us to distraction — minute by minute, mile by mile, cent by cent, from sunrise to sunset, ET.

In Lake Tahoe, Nev., prices at some gas pumps are approaching $3.50 for regular. Record highs are being posted statewide in California, according to a new American Automobile Association survey.

A motorist pulled into the Bradley's Food Mart in Aurora, Colo. Monday, and paid his bill with $34 in change — quarters, nickels and dimes — which took the attendant five minutes to count out.

But at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, some early morning rail commuters quietly relish the prices they don't have to pay. Roby Muntoni, a Bank of America employee, ditched her SUV 18 months ago when she moved from North Carolina: "I couldn't even tell you what prices are right now."

On New York's West Side, cabbie Alvin Adams doesn't feel like he's facing a crisis. His Toyota taxi consumes so much less gas than the standard 4-door, 8-cylinder Fords that he saves $30 a shift. He expects the city's taxi commission to approve a dollar surcharge soon to compensate for the high prices; he says more people are ditching their cars and taking cabs.

7 a.m. Acworth, Ga., Regular: $2.74

The QuikTrip convenience store on U.S. 41 is locked in a price war with a Raceway station across the street. They had the third-lowest gas prices in the Atlanta area on Monday, according to the website

Among those attracted by the warfare:

Bill Marcus, 46. He likes the battle. "These guys can afford to sell gas 15 cents lower than everybody else in town because they're in a gas war. ...Why can't everybody lower their prices that much?"

Raymond Gossett, 37, no longer fills up occasionally with premium gas to clean the fuel injectors in his Honda. Today, he pumps just $7 worth of regular because that's all he has; it's payday.

Belia Lara, 54, who supports herself reselling odds and ends at a flea market, says she sometimes begs strangers for gas money so she can drive her 15-year-old son to therapy for a spinal injury. "I say 'please, please give me some money for gasoline' Sometimes, they give me $5 or $10." She offers her patrons something from her trunk, like a baseball cap. "But they say, 'no, no, it's okay.' "

8 a.m., Melbourne, Fla. Regular: $2.89-$2.95

In the Misty Creek subdivision outside Melbourne, Fla., three crewmembers from M&M Lawn Maintenance steer a fleet of roaring Kubota riding mowers around neat rows of palm trees. Three other workers swing gas-powered edge trimmers, scattering blades of rubbery St. Augustine grass.

M&M co-owner Steve Rose oversees 18 such crews that burn through more than 1,300 gallons of gasoline a month. Rose's fuel bill is now $18,000-$20,000 per month, compared with $14,000-$15,000 late last year. But because of yearly contracts, lawn services like M&M can't easily pass their costs on to consumers. And the business is so competitive, services keep margins low to win those contracts.

Rising gas prices have forced Rose to craft new plans to save gas and maintain profits. For example, he used to send one crew over a five-day period to mow a 900-home subdivision in Port Orange, an hour's drive north. He now sends up three crews to get the job done in one long, hard day. That saves his fleet 280 vehicle miles per week, he says.

Rose is eager to try gas alternatives such as biodiesel fuel. But he doesn't foresee changes coming soon. "The people who have the power to do something about it are the people who are making money from it today."

8:09 a.m. (7:09 a.m CT), Chicago Regular: $2.99

Chris Franczyk, 39, arrives for work in downtown Chicago, having finished another 25-mile commute from the suburbs while watching his gas gauge sink and calculating how soon he'll have to pay another $40 to fill his Saturn Ion.

He's annoyed by the very thought of gas prices ("what I really think about them you can't write down"). He's shopping for a new car that gets better mileage — his gets 23 miles a gallon — but he thinks hybrids are too expensive. And he knows whom to blame for the prices. "Oil companies. Billions of dollars in profits for Mobil Oil? Come on. It's them."

Across the prairie in Iowa, Raymond Repp would be planting corn and soybeans on any other May morning. But recent rains have left his 3,300 acres too wet. That gives the 58-year-old farmer more time to plot ways to combat rising fuel prices, which makes everything more expensive, from fertilizing crops to hauling them to market.

This year, he and his cousin decided to cultivate fewer fields before planting, thus saving about a half gallon of diesel fuel per acre.

Repp bought a 7,500-gallon tank full of diesel in February, paying about $2 a gallon. Now he'd pay $2.80. So he's considering selling grain closer to home, even though the price he gets would be less.

"Does it keep me up at night? No," says Repp, whose family has farmed south of Perry since 1869. "Do I think about it a lot? Yes."

Meanwhile, the business day begins. In Dallas, Remington Oil & Gas Corp. says higher oil and gas prices and strong production drove first-quarter profit up sharply. In New York, oil and gas producer Noble Energy Inc. says its quarterly profit doubled.

10:55 a.m. (9:55 a.m. CT), Madison, Wis. Regular: $2.89

Jen Richter, 21, arrives for class at the University of Wisconsin driving a Honda Aero moped. Richter, who drives all week on less than $2, feels no gas price squeeze. In crowded Madison, she says, parking is a bigger problem.

About 20 minutes later, Jamie Dillon, 23, a student at a Madison technical college, drives up in an aging Buick Century that now costs about $42 to fill up. So Dillon has cut back on groceries, and he plans to move closer to school. And soon, he says, "I'm going to get rid of this, and get a bike."

Outside Denver, Gwen Sterner has an even better idea. She's feeling a bit morally superior as she fills her 2001 Toyota Prius hybrid with $29.59 regular — "the most I've ever paid for gasoline." But she'll drive 650 miles before refueling. "I still can't believe all these people driving these hunkers," Sterner, 60, says of SUVs. "I look at these guys and say, 'You're stupid!' "

By that logic, you might expect sales of gas-guzzlers to be slow at Mount Kisco Chevrolet, Cadillac, Hummer outside New York City. You'd be wrong.

SUVs such as the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe sell well, as does the Cadillac Escalade. And the tank-like Hummer? The smaller, more economical H3 "has been gigantic since its introduction last June," says Patrick Holden, a confident 25-year-old salesman. The larger H2, estimated to get about 15 miles per gallon, sells to a niche market pretty much unaffected by gas prices.

"We've had the best March and April that we've had in a long time," says Holden. "People look at the sticker and see what the EPA rating is, but they've been doing that for decades. We're doing great with models that you might think wouldn't be doing so well. We have the blessing of affluence around here."

Liz Kato is not so blessed.

The 41-year-old unemployed receptionist is searching for work in Aurora, Colo. But this morning she's almost run out of gas while driving around looking unsuccessfully for the office of a potential employer.

She pulls into a Sinclair Bradley station to put a mere $10 in the tank of her old SUV. "I hate to think that's the way it's going to stay," she sighs, referring to the price on the pump. She pulls away to continue her search for work.

11:45 a.m. (10:45 a.m. CT), Elmhurst, Ill.

Lunch deliveries are just starting, and the driver for the Red Dragon Chinese Restaurant pays for his own gas. Owner Bob Choi says that, so far, the driver hasn't complained about soaring costs at the pump. But Choi, 54, has plenty of his own concerns: He pays more these days for vegetable and meat deliveries, and his gas bill is up to $800-$900 a month.

"Gas price affects everything," he says. The biggest culprits are the gas jets used in the kitchen to cook the food he serves. "They eat gas like it is water," he says.

Choi, in the restaurant business for 23 years, worries about the impact of rising costs on his bottom line and wonders if he might have to increase what he charges customers. "Raising prices," he says, "is not a good idea."

1:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m. MT), Sand Springs, Mont. Regular: $2.97

The few travelers along the 75-mile stretch of Route 200 between Winnett and Jordan in Eastern Montana pass hundreds of Black Angus cattle, dozens of pronghorn antelope and one gas pump.

Diana Thomas, 52, is in town for the day to work as an elections judge at the one-room schoolhouse. She spends $32.90 on 11 gallons to fill her Chevy Lumina, and wishes she'd done it a day earlier — when the price was 20 cents cheaper. "I don't really have a choice," said Thomas. "It's too far to walk."

Sand Springs consists of Sand Springs Store and Post Office, the Ecumenical Sand Springs Community Church, and the school, which has seven children in kindergarten through eighth grade. The nearest real town is Jordan, where everybody does their shopping. It's 32 miles away. Public transit consists of catching a ride with a neighbor.

Calvin Thomas, 54, a farmer, isn't buying Tuesday. He's driven in on his four-wheel Yamaha Rhino buggy to pick up his mail. He's using the all-terrain vehicle, rather than his Chevy half-ton pickup, more these days to get around the farm.

"Everything we do here takes us 100 miles," he says. "It's a 65-mile round trip just to buy milk."

2 p.m. (1 p.m. CT), Interstate 90 rest area, S.D.-Minn. border

Sitting in his truck with a good cigar and his dog, Hershey, Randy Kostiz appears unconcerned about the gas price crisis. Here's the key:

"I'm old," says Kostiz, 61. "You've still got to live your life. There's no sense fighting windmills."

From home in Forest Ranch, Calif., he and his wife are driving with an RV trailer to visit friends in Hutchinson, Minn., a 2,000-mile trip. No problem, he says: "You've just got to do what you gotta do and not worry about everything else."

4:30 p.m., New York City

Gine Romano, a young, stay-at-home mom from Philadelphia visiting family in New York, opted to travel by Greyhound bus, even though it means toting a stroller, luggage and 1-year-old through the Port Authority Bus Terminal, one of the nation's busiest.

"We used to go out just to go out, (but) now it's only for important errands," says Romano, who shares a car with her mother. Leisure trips have been reduced from four to six times a week to one to three. "Instead of driving to the mall, now we walk to the park," she says. "Things are just getting more and more expensive. I can't even think about what it's going to be like 15 years from now, when my baby is grown up."

5:20 p.m. (2:30 PT), Bermuda Dunes, Calif. Regular: $3.33

George Stock steels himself for the commute home. But instead of opening his wallet to pay for gas, he opens a saddlebag on the 30-year-old 10-speed he rides to and from work.

"These you have to have," says Stock, holding up two miniature bungee cords from the collection he uses to secure items on the bike. He says he can carry everything he needs, from school papers to a 50-pound bag of mortar.

Stock, 63, a substitute teacher, has navigated traffic, desert heat and a stiff breeze to ride about 14 miles between his home and three area schools. Although he's been riding since gas was less than a buck a gallon, the gas price hike has renewed his optimism that more people will trade four wheels for two. "I'm no Lance Armstrong. If I can do it, anybody who is reasonably physically healthy can do it."

6 p.m., Wintersville, Ohio

Step right up, the Bates Brothers carnival is open for thrills and chills. And step quickly, because the rides are open for just four hours — thanks to fuel prices.

Eric Bates, 57, owner of Bates Brothers Amusement Co., says that until recently, the Mardi Gras fun house, The Screamer and The Yo-Yo would run until midnight or longer — as long as people wanted to ride.

On this night, they'll stop in four hours — at 10 p.m. sharp.

Fuel prices are testing Bates' business skills. "It hurts to write a check for $7,000 to keep one generator going for a week," he says.

His company consumes up to 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel a week. Fuel has replaced insurance as his company's second-biggest expense, behind labor costs. So Bates is adjusting that over which he has control: operating hours.

6:10 p.m., Front Royal, Va. Regular: $2.81

The commuters in the blue Kia van pull back into the Park 'N Ride about 75 minutes after leaving Washington.

That business about mother and daughter losing their private time on the road? The mom, Linda Burnett, says she doesn't really miss it.

For one thing, they eat lunch together every day. For another, when it was just the two of them with Jennifer driving, "I never felt like I could sleep, in case it would make her sleepy," Burnett says.

Now, with two others to keep the driver company, Burnett can get her rest. And when neither mother nor daughter are driving, Jennifer can join her. Gas prices may be a nightmare, but for the Burnetts, carpooling works like a dream.

Contributing: Rick Hampson, Martha T. Moore and Mary Pilon in New York; Judy Keen in Chicago, Joliet and Elmhurst, Ill.; Patrick O'Driscoll in Aurora, Colo.; Laura Parker in Front Royal, Va.; Dennis Cauchon in Columbus, Ohio; Larry Copeland in Acworth, Ga.; Matt Reed of Florida Today in Melbourne; Ken Fuson of the The Des Moines Register in Perry, Iowa; Ben Jones of The (Appleton, Wis.) Post-Crescent in Madison; Gary Stern of The (Westchester County, N.Y.) News Journal in Mount Kisco; Gwen Florio of the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune in Sand Springs; Stu Whitney of the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader in Sioux Falls and Beaver Creek, Minn.; Ben Spillman of the Palm Springs, Calif., Desert Sun in Bermuda Dunes.

Find this article at: