Originally created 03/27/06

Prices keep putting pinch on motorists



Augusta State University sophomore Leigh Robbins is grounded in the Garden City until the price at the pump stops hurting her wallet so much.

That means her cherry red 2005 Ford Mustang is curbed until she can afford to burn rubber on long road trips home to Wilmington, N.C.

But zipping around town is a necessity.

Paying $2.39 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline, the ASU softball player recently spent about $40 filling up her car's tank at the Shell station at Center West Parkway and Washington Road.

"It's definitely taken a toll on my daily activities," she said, mentioning that she tries to eat out less and carpool with her roommate.

For the past year, high gasoline prices have hung over motorists like the humid air of an oppressive Augusta summer.

On March 24, 2005, gasoline prices in the Augusta area rose above $2 a gallon for the first time as crude oil prices jumped to $55 a barrel from the mid-$40s.

Gas woes increased in early September, when anxious motorists jammed gas stations as fuel prices climbed past the $3 mark after damage to Gulf Coast oil pipelines by Hurricane Katrina sparked fears of a fuel shortage.

Although prices briefly dropped below the $2 mark earlier this year, they have slowly inched back up, reminding consumers that they might have to continue cost-saving measures indefinitely.

Augusta resident Liz Robertson, 26, already lives on a tight budget. She'll sit at home as long as she can before boredom forces her into her Toyota Corolla.

She also limits driving to "going into work," and when she's not driving there, she stays "close to home," she said.

Sharing the driving is also a helpful cost-saver.

Augusta mom Carla Owen, 38, carpooled with other families to school, soccer and birthday parties before gasoline prices increased, and said the convenience and savings of carpooling is especially beneficial now.

If possible, Mrs. Owen will take her husband's Toyota Maxima on errands because it costs $20 less to fill it up compared with her GMC Yukon XL.

With high gasoline prices, "you certainly are mindful of what you're doing," Mrs. Owen said, adding that she tries to stick to the same part of town while running errands instead of crisscrossing the county.

The prices have had some effect on people visiting Augusta, too.

While there has been no drastic reduction in the number of tourists as a result of high gasoline prices, 15 motor coach tours did cancel trips to Augusta in 2005, according to Jennifer Bowen, the vice president of public relations at the Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Only three of the 15 cancelled tours were specifically the result of high fuel costs, but Ms. Bowen said bureau officials suspected many of the other canceled tours could not fill up their buses because of higher costs passed on to the customer from increased fuel prices.

In 2005, 86 motor coaches came to Augusta, 11 more than the previous year, Ms. Bowen said.

"(Gas prices) didn't prove to have any effect on tourism in Augusta," she continued.

While sales have not increase dramatically at Outspokin Bicycles on Walton Way, store owner Brett Ardrey said he has seen more people commuting to work downtown on bikes.

Families are also bringing bicycles along on vacations, especially to camp sites where they can bike instead of drive around the camp site, he said.

As consumers are trying to cut costs, are they accepting $2 per gallon as the norm?

Mr. Ardrey thinks so. If gasoline ever goes down to $1.75 a gallon, people would think it's a bargain and say, "'Holy smokes, I have to go out and buy that!'" he said.

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.

Average gas price in Georgia

The 12-month average price for regular unleaded gas in Georgia:

April 2005: $2.20

May 2005: $2.00

June 2005: $2.05

July 2005: $2.18

August 2005: $2.43

September 2005: $2.80

October 2005: $2.84

November 2005: $2.18

December 2005: $2.09

January 2006: $2.26

February 2006: $2.17

March 2006: $2.30

Source: AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report