Storm surges hit the pumps

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:52

    While Hurricane Katrina rearranged the Gulf Coast landscape last week, it also quickly reshaped the tristate area's gasoline market. Katrina knocked out much of the Gulf Coast's oil production and refining capacity, which brought a surge of price increases. The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday reported that the average price last week rose 18 percent, or about 46 cents for a gallon of regular gas, bringing the national average to $3.07 a gallon. But our area took a stiffer blow with an average increase of 25 percent, or 68 cents a gallon, for an average of price of $3.35. The storm upset a long-standing pattern in the Port Jervis, N.Y., and Montague, N.J., Matamoras, Pa., area, as New Jersey price increases outdistanced those in New York and Pennsylvania. A Montague, N.J., Citgo station, which sits astride the New York state line, usually has long lines of cars even in the best of times. Three large stations on Route 23 in New Jersey, on the New York border, do a brisk business in part because Pennsylvania levies more than 16 cents per gallon in taxes, and New York 28 cents. But on Tuesday, the lines were gone. Citgo showed a price of $3.30 for a gallon of regular gas, compared to $3.25 per gallon for Mobil, a mile away in Port Jervis, and $3.22 for regular, two miles away at Tri-States Shell in Matamoras. Store managers in the three Montague stations either could not account for the price disparity or declined comment. But Debra Vandermark, a clerk at the Cumberland Farms station in Montague, said customers should not blame employees. "I'm not getting any breaks," she said. "I'm driving 10 miles a day to work, at a job that starts at $7.50 an hour. And I don't know how I'm going to heat my house this winter." Frank Suleiman, manager of Monroe Gulf on Route 17M, was also frustrated. With regular gas priced at $3.59 on Tuesday, Suleiman's eight pumps were nearly abandoned. Sales were off by 50 percent, he said. The customers who were still buying were using their credit cards more. "Many people don't carry $60 or $70 in cash for gas," he said. Suleiman pays the oil company a service charge on all credit card sales. With a profit margin of only five cents per gallon, he said, the increased use of credit cards means he loses about two cents per gallon. Some politicians have been talking about launching investigations into price gouging. But Suleiman said that since few active stations can store more than two days' worth of gas, any gouging going on is not being done at the pumps. "We've been promised a lower price with tomorrow's delivery," he said. Like most station owners, Suleiman doesn't make his living on gasoline sales. The pumps are there to draw business to his garage. He said his only concern is that prices seem reasonable to his customers. "If I make zero, I'm happy, if they are," he said. Vic Singh, a manager at the Mobil Mart on Greenwich Avenue in Goshen told a similar story. Volume is off with the higher prices, as many customers have become accustomed to paying only $15 or $20 at each stop. Sales in the convenience store have also fallen. "When they're paying more outside, they're less inclined to come inside for coffee and sodas," Singh said. Tri-States Shell in Matamoras sits right off the end of the westbound exit of I-84. Station employee Jim Riho said there has been more credit card use at this station too, but sales haven't declined by much. Regular neighborhood customers continue to patronize the full-service garage, while weekend travelers, after the initial shock of last week's price hikes, pay the bill and go on their way. Some station operators said they experienced minor delays in deliveries late last week, but none since then. The higher prices did not appear to be a turning point for our automobile-based culture. Consumers we spoke to are accepting the new prices with grim resolve. A woman putting gas into her car at a local station grimaced at the subject. "It's terrible, but I really don't have time to talk about it," she said. "I have to go pick up my daughter." Paul Linderman of Monroe made a prediction. "It's never going to get below $3 [per gallon] again," he said. "But people gotta have it."