As U.S. Gas Prices Soar, Islanders Go to the Pump and Still Pay Much More
By JIM HICKEY
With gasoline prices at an all-time high across the country, the Vineyard stands in the top ranks for prices paid at the pump, as the cost of premium gas climbed above the four dollar mark at most Island stations this week and regular trailed not far behind.
Data gathered from the American Automobile Association and Massachusetts Department of Energy Web sites shows that motorists in Dukes County are paying more for gas than most drivers in California, the state historically with the highest fuel costs.
A sampling of prices at gas stations around the Island yesterday showed an average of $4.03 for premium, $3.93 for mid-grade, and $3.83 for regular - well above the national average of $3.30 for premium, $3.19 for mid-grade and $3.00 for regular listed on the AAA web site.
There are nine gas stations on the Vineyard.
On Wednesday this week premium gas at Airport Mobil and Menemsha Texaco was selling for $3.98 a gallon. Premium grade was selling for $4.09 at Edgartown Mobil, $4.07 at Jim's Package Store & Island Market in Oak Bluffs, and $3.99 at Tisbury Shell in Vineyard Haven. Prices at Up Island Automotive in West Tisbury were lowest: $3.87 for premium and $3.67 for regular.
Earlier in the week Santo Iconnetti, a 36-year-old summer worker from Rhode Island, stared in disbelief at the meter on Tuesday as he filled the tank of his 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee at an Island station.
Like a stockbroker watching the Dow Jones index plummet or a poker player watching his opponent draw to an inside straight, Mr. Iconnetti's jaw clenched as the meter eclipsed the $40 mark - then the $50 mark - before stopping at the sum of $54.53.
And while Mr. Iconnetti, who is working two jobs this summer to save enough to move to New York city in the fall, knows it costs more to gas up his larger sports utility vehicle, he said it has never cost more than $40 to fill his tank - never mind $55.
"That's more than it costs to buy groceries for the week - that's almost more than I spend a week on beer! I can remember when it cost like $20 to fill the tank. Now I have to stay home at night just so I can drive around," Mr. Iconnetti said.
Prices for regular grade gasoline were generally 20 cents cheaper a gallon than premium grade.
But even the cost of regular grade gas, the preferred fuel for most people, was cause for alarm this past week.
"It just sucks. There's no other way to put it," said 27-year-old Gerard Senkal, after putting $40 worth of gas into his 2005 Nissan Pathfinder that did not even fill the tank, adding: "I've thought about trading [the sports utility vehicle] in for something better on gas, but I haven't even made a dent in the payments."
Vineyarders are accustomed to paying extra for everything from groceries to shoes, and higher prices are generally attributed to the higher cost of running a business on the Island. Rents are higher, employees are harder to retain, and it costs money to bring over merchandise on the ferry.
But rising gas prices are an especially sore subject for some drivers. When gas prices crossed the three-dollar-a-gallon mark here last summer, motorists cried highway robbery. One year later, the price of premium gas has increased by a full dollar, up 30 per cent from this time last year.
A story in the August 23, 2002 edition of the Gazette reported that the price of premium gas price was approaching the two dollar mark. In the space of four years, the price of premium gas on the Island - at least during the summer months - has doubled.
Elza Minor, a taxi driver for Adam Cab who has worked on the Island for several years, said the soaring price of gas is taking money out of the pockets of many drivers, because they pay for their own gas.
"These things eat up a lot of gas," he said, motioning toward the large taxi van, adding: "It really hurts when you have to put between $60 to $80 worth of gas into the tank each shift."
Mr. Minor is from California, the state known for its highest gas prices, but he noted that Massachusetts isn't that far behind.
"Paying $4 a gallon is way too high for a working man. It hurts," he said.
The cost of gas here and elsewhere is based on the cost of crude oil, a commodity with wide price swings in times of shortage or oversupply. The cost of oil can change due to a variety of factors, including turmoil in the Middle East and capacity in this country for refining oil. Gasoline prices skyrocketed late last summer after Hurricane Katrina crippled the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, the price gap between the Island and the mainland cannot be fully explained. A random sampling of gas stations in Falmouth put the average cost of premium gas cost at $3.44 a gallon - a difference of 60 cents just to cross the Sound.
Michael Rotondo, owner of Airport Mobil, said the higher prices can be pegged to taxes, transportation and the higher cost of living. Mr. Rotondo said he actually makes less money when gas prices increase because he has to pay more each gallon, and more people charge gas to their credit cards. The station pays the credit card company a clearing cost of between 1.5 to 3.2 per cent for every transaction.
But Mr. Rotondo said the cost of bringing the fuel to the Island is the main reason for the higher prices. His delivery truck leaves Rhode Island at 3 a.m., he said, to catch an early ferry. It then waits in line, takes the boat, delivers the gas, and gets back on the boat on the way back to Rhode Island.
He said it costs him around $90 an hour for the truck and around $45 an hour for the driver.
"It takes the same time to deliver to the Vineyard that it would take the same truck to deliver to two or three stations on the mainland," he said.
Mr. Rotondo said he understands why people get frustrated with the cost of gas. He said he frequently runs specials to show his appreciation for his customers. He has offered senior citizen discounts in the past, as well as car wash discounts for a fill-up.
And despite rising gas prices, Mr. Rotondo said he sees no signs that gas consumption will slow anytime soon.
"These people will look at the price of gas and they'll gasp, and then they'll talk about how much it costs to fill the tank of their brand new Range Rover. But when you ask them why they bought it in the first place, they'll say: ‘I got a really good deal on it,' " he said.
Ralph Packer, owner of R.M. Packer Co., which supplies the Island Shell stations, said the petroleum industry has always worked on a system of profit margins, as opposed to retailers who keep to a fixed profit percentage, regardless of base price increases. In the petroleum industry, Mr. Packer said, gas stations earn a certain number of cents per gallon, regardless of the price. Even if the price of gas goes up, the percentage stays the same, he said.
Mr. Packer's 30-year-old company is headquartered in Vineyard Haven, and is both a wholesaler and retailer of gasoline. Mr. Packer operates a operates a marine transport facility for petroleum products. The company ships some four to five millions gallons of gasoline to the Vineyard every year.
Mr. Packer said his company's operating costs are built into the price of gas. He noted that the company has spent $200,000 in recent years to bring the terminal into compliance with Homeland Security. The company recently purchased a new truck for $100,000, and pays an average electrical bill of $5,000 a month, he said.
"Nothing is cheap here on the Island. That's just a fact of life. If we could sell gas for less, we would," Mr. Packer said.