Gas Pump Prices on the Vineyard Top Most Other Places in America

By MANDY LOCKE

Islanders have endured another summer of steep prices at the gas pump. Another season of shelling out more bucks to get from here to there than Americans across the nation. Another year of trying to figure out how fuel prices managed to jump about 41 cents a gallon in the five-mile trek across the Sound.

The complaints are warranted. Prices for regular unleaded gasoline climbed to nearly $2 a gallon this week - higher than practically any town, city or village in the United States.

Folks down in Nashville, Tenn. snagged regular gas at the bargain price of $1.29 a gallon this week. Drivers in Detroit are shelling out about $1.44 a gallon. In the desert of Palm Springs, Californians are paying $1.63 a gallon for the low-octane brew. On the tip of Florida, vacationers in Key West are paying $1.61 a gallon.

Less accessible places didn't fare much worse. In the virtual island of Broken Bow, Neb. - where the nearest town is 30 miles away - Doug at Trotter Service Station is charged $1.44 a gallon for his non-brand gasoline. In Honolulu, a busy Shell station charged $1.64 a gallon yesterday. On Bainbridge Island - connected to Washington state by a bridge - a local Chevron station charged $1.39 a gallon, lower than stations in Seattle.

A little closer to home, Block Islanders paid $1.90 per gallon at the only gas station on the small island off the coast of Rhode Island.

Just across the Sound, Falmouth stations were charging around $1.58 a gallon for regular unleaded this week.

Only Nantucket beat the Vineyard's steep prices, with a price of $2.03 per gallon at a local Exxon Mobil station. Nantucket fuel distributer John Stackpole blames the 30-hour boat trip from New York and the island's high cost of living for Nantucket's high gas prices. The only good news, says Mr. Stackpole, is that drivers don't have to go very far on Nantucket.

Not necessarily so on Martha's Vineyard, where a round trip from Main street Edgartown to the Gay Head Cliffs is 36 miles.

Needless to say, Island residents are all ears when it comes to hearing about fuel price relief. Those promises have been floating over the airwaves and printed on newspaper pages this summer, compliments of gas station developers making their way through a development of regional impact review at the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The promise of cheaper fuel hinges on project approval from the regional planning body.

Tisbury Fuel Services Inc. - whose principals have proposed a gas station in Tisbury's State Road corridor three other times in the past three years - offered a discounted fuel contract to commission members if the board approves a two-pump filling station on High Road in Tisbury. Quite simply, they aim to sell fuel anywhere from eight to 21 cents less than the Island's eight other gas stations, cheaper than the other State Road gas station developer whose plan also sits in front of the MVC. That gas station proposal, Gervais and Goldborough, if built, would be located a few blocks away from Tisbury Fuel Services.

The logistics of discounted fuel - and the reaction from existing fuel station owners - are not so simple.

"They'll have a bookkeeping system that requires a lawyer to keep track of," said Marshall Carroll of Menemsha Texaco.

Indeed, Tisbury Fuel Services's has laid out a three-page proposed contract full of clauses and conditions. In the first five years of business, the owners say they will sell gasoline 36 cents above wholesale price - a cost now hanging in the $1.45 range. Taxes, the distributor's mark-up, delivery fees and the rack price make up the wholesale price.

Tisbury Fuel Services' fixed discount for Islanders would climb a few cents after five years, and another few cents after 10 years. In addition, they will contribute a penny per gallon sold to an Island affordable housing group.

"The one potential detriment of this is that it would draw customers from other gas stations," said Tisbury Fuel Services attorney Hillary Schultz to commission members at a public hearing in July. "But this is a benefit to many at the detriment of a few. And I don't really think [other Island gas stations] deserve that consideration, because they enjoyed high prices for so long."

Gas station owners across the Island - in a rare show of solidarity - have taken off the gloves.

In a letter signed by all gas station owners, Airport Fuel Service owner Michael Rotondo - who also pitched lower fuel prices during commission review six years ago - said: "There are approximately 12 million to 13 million gallons of fuel used on Martha's Vineyard each year. This is a finite number. No matter how many gas stations you place within the community, this number will not change.

"If the new gas stations were to capture a share of the marketplace, they would hope to pump approximately 1.2 million gallons per year, thus taking away from the established stations that have worked hard for many years serving the Island by providing fuel to our residents and visitors alike, while serving as an important linchpin in the Island economy by employing local workers," he continued.

Exactly how much of a profit gas station owners pocket is one of the most mysterious aspects of the Island economy.

A Gazette probe two years ago revealed a 42 to 49 cent difference between what Mobil station owners pay for each gallon of gas and what Island consumers pay for that same gallon. This difference factors wholesale price of Providence gasoline, taxes, delivery costs and Steamship Authority fares. The Gazette could not complete a similar price probe for Texaco fuel - which is barged from New Bedford by Island business R.M. Packer Co., where the gasoline is stored in tanks on the Vineyard Haven waterfront before delivery to Island stations aboard 3,500-gallon trucks.

Station owners contend that nearly all of that profit margin is swallowed by high rents and mortgages, high labor costs and insurance premiums.

Mr. Rotondo said his gains range from 20 to 32 cents per gallon depending on the season. If he managed to sell a million gallons - which Mr. Rotondo said he does not - he could make $200,000 minimally. He said he must offset overhead with his car wash and oil changes.

Mr. Carroll agrees - saying he'd rather sell $10 worth of Snapple than $20 worth of fuel any day.

Island fuel station owners planned to attend the MVC meeting last night in force to fight for their share of the market and to keep additional fuel trucks off Island roads.

"We're not bad guys," Mr. Carroll said.

"I know it looks bad, but it's not. Our prices of gas come up and down with the market, but you never see anyone else's bills come down," he added.