BANGOR, Maine — Patience may be running as thin as people’s wallets when it comes to quickly increasing gasoline prices.
In the last six months, prices for unleaded gasoline have risen almost a dollar, going from a statewide average of $2.68 on Sept. 13, 2010, to $3.59 on Monday, according to figures supplied by the Oil Price Information Service through AAA Northern New England.That represents a 33 percent increase.
“The biggest topic is: How do I fill my gas tank and my home at the same time?” said Pat Moody, AAA Northern New England director of public affairs. “Their driving habits, for the most part, aren’t changing, but their shopping habits may be.”
That can’t be said for people like Bangor’s Don Factor.
“We don’t go to Sugarloaf to ski on weekends as much as we used to, probably 50 percent less. We probably go one weekend a month at the most because of the travel cost,” Factor said while filling the tank of his six-cylinder 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee at Sam’s Club in Bangor on Monday afternoon. “We’re essentially a one-car family and this Jeep has 236,000 miles on it, but we keep it maintained and get about 21, 22 miles a gallon on the highway.”
After the average price per gallon broke the $3 mark last November, many drivers started doing what they could to conserve fuel. After being marked by slow but steady price increases, the jumps became more drastic over the last month. Gas has vaulted 4 cents a gallon in less than 24 hours twice since Feb. 24, when unleaded gas was $3.33, to the current $3.59, 3 cents higher than the national average.
“When I left North Carolina back on Friday, it was pushing $3.60, $3.61,” said Bucksport native Josh Bickford, who is visiting family before deploying with fellow Marines to Afghanistan. “I still drive the usual amount, but I just look for the cheapest place to gas up.”
Rapidly rising prices — which many customers blame on, and Moody says largely stem from, commodities traders’ and speculators’ concerns over unrest and supply disruptions in the Middle East — are forcing many people to make tough decisions.
“I would say we’ve driven 5,000 to 6,000 less miles this year already,” said Brian Bridges of Bucksport. “We usually go down to Florida, but we didn’t this year.”
“We’re living just on the edge, so we have to make everything count,” he added.
At this time a year ago, unleaded gas was $2.82, midgrade or medium octane was $2.93, premium grade $3.02, and diesel was $2.96.
“They’re estimating that the increase this March compared to last March is going to be $40, meaning the average motorist will pay $40 more for their gas this month than they did a year ago,” said Moody. “Back in December or January, the U.S. Energy Information Administration put their 2011 forecast for gasoline at $3.15, but in the last couple weeks updated that projection to $3.56.”
It’s not just customers who are frustrated by current prices. Small-business owners such as Joe Kalel, who has owned and operated Joe’s Gulf gas station and garage on Main Street in Brewer since 1976, also are dismayed.
“I can’t afford to buy my gas directly because I can’t buy as much as the big companies, so I get my gas through a middleman, Dead River,” said the Bangor resident. “Because of that, my price is higher and I try to get anywhere from 10 to 15 cents a gallon higher.”
But that’s not all profit because it costs Kalel 3 percent to 5 percent, depending on the card company, to accept credit card payments.
And then there are the customer complaints.
“People are funny. They’ll go to a big place like Irving and say nothing, but they’ll come to a little guy like me and they’ll say something, I guess because they know I’m the owner,” he said.
There is some good news to report, however.
“Gas is down a half-cent from yesterday and it does look like things have finally started to level off here,” said Moody. “Typically we see prices peak a week or so before Memorial Day, but many analysts are saying we may see that peak for the whole year in April.”
That’s music to Greenville resident George Fogg’s ears, but he’s not letting that change his new-found conservation habits anytime soon.
“We’re kind of forced to come down here from Greenville to get stuff, so we kind of plan our trips,” Fogg said. “Around town, I live about two-tenths of a mile from downtown Greenville and the post office, the bank, drugstore and hardware store, so during warmer weather, I mostly walk there. And the way prices are going up with gas, I’m going to be walking a lot more often.”