Columbus, Ga., claimed the title of "cheapest gas in Georgia" this month, a spot historically held by Augusta.
The latest gasoline price survey by AAA Auto Club South showed self-serve regular unleaded gasoline selling for $1.29 in Columbus, 5 cents a gallon cheaper than Augusta's surveyed price of $1.34.
"Usually, we are the lowest," said a baffled Judy Reville, AAA's Augusta office manager. "Every month, we check the same stations. It just happened this way."
Officials with the auto club in Columbus also were unable to explain why gasoline was suddenly cheaper in an area usually second only to Atlanta for pricey fuel. They weren't exactly interested in getting to the bottom of the anomaly, though.
"I'm afraid to start asking people," said Ken Kincaid, AAA's Columbus manager. "I don't want to do anything to make the price jump."
Mr. Kincaid said the situation is particularly odd considering the Columbus market usually prices its fuel a couple of cents cheaper than neighboring Alabama, a state whose fuel is historically more expensive than Georgia's because of its higher gasoline taxes.
"It's really strange," Mr. Kincaid said.
Augusta prices were still lower than Atlanta's ($1.47) and Savannah's ($1.37), according to AAA. Last year, the state's average price in August for regular unleaded was $1.08; the year before it was 87 cents.
Augusta fuel is usually the cheapest in the state because the market straddles the Colonial Pipeline - the Texas-to-New York pipeline that supplies the Eastern Seaboard with most of its petroleum products - and because of a large percentage of low-cost independent fuel retailers, such as RaceTrac, Speedway/Starvin' Marvin' and Holiday Market.
Independent retailers are typically cheaper than branded fuel stations such as Exxon, Chevron and BP because they don't bear the same marketing costs.
Some motorists have speculated Augusta's prices are not as competitive as they used to be because of Connecticut-based Tosco Corp.'s purchase of Smile Gas, the local high-volume convenience store chain known for its cutthroat pricing.
But one of Smile Gas' biggest competitors said the local market is as competitive as ever.
"The conditions in this market haven't changed," said Alan Brosius, co-owner of the Augusta-based Pump-N-Shop convenience store chain.
He said he suspects that Columbus, which, unlike Augusta, is dominated by branded stations, is experiencing some type of price war, possibly with a new independent that has entered the market.
"Somebody might have opened up a new store and is trying to build market share," he said. "Market conditions change from street to street and from town to town. I saw $1.24 (a gallon) in Athens on Wednesday. That station had to be selling below cost."
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.