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DRIVERS FEELING THE CRUNCH
DAILY STICKER SHOCK AT THE GAS PUMPS -- IN BUFFALO AND ACROSS THE NATION -- IS FORCING MANY PEOPLE TO RE-EVALUATE THEIR TRANSPORTATION HABITS AND NEEDS

David Steele has found his ticket to cheap gas these days.

"I've been going to the junkyards, siphoning the gas out of the cars," the 45-year-old South Buffalo resident admitted. "No shame in my game."

Apparently, shame is something he can't afford when it costs more than $80 to fill the tank of his rusting 1994 Chevy Suburban. He's taped a for-sale sign to the mammoth SUV and expects to soon spend more time riding his far more fuel-efficient motorcycle.

Drivers are getting hit with daily sticker shock at the gas pumps these days. Nearly every day since March 21 has set a new record high for Western New York prices. Tuesday was no exception.

Prior to March 21, the last record had been set in June 2004. Now, records fall like dominoes across the daily calendar. And experts say motorists shouldn't expect much relief soon.

The region averaged $2.30 per gallon on Tuesday, according to the AAA of Western and Central New York. That's 24 percent higher than a year ago and 17 percent higher than just three weeks ago.

Telltale signs are also emerging in the automotive marketplace that consumers may be changing their car-buying habits and kicking their larger SUVs to the curb.

Swear words zipped around in Rebecca Roche's head as she considered her feelings about the spike in gas prices, but the Grand Island resident pressed her lips together because she didn't think they'd look good in print.

It costs her $35 to fill her 1995 Ford Explorer, which she uses to haul camping gear and a boat.

"That's a lot more than I'm used to paying," she said at the Kwik Fill station in Buffalo's Riverside neighborhood.

Station attendant Ken J. Brown said he has been hearing the whining for weeks.

"They complain a lot," he said. "We've been going up 2 or 3 cents a week on average for the past month."

The question that surfaces most: When will this misery end?

That's a good question not easily answered because of the complex nature of the fuel industry.

The Energy Information Administration recently predicted that gas prices nationwide will remain high through the high-demand summer season, averaging $2.28 per gallon from April through September. The bad news for Buffalo Niagara: we're already paying more than that, on average.

Some hopeful signs

Meanwhile, the Lundberg Survey, a widely watched report on petroleum prices, suggested in its last report that retail gas prices might be peaking. And on Tuesday, the price of crude oil fell for the sixth day in the past seven days, a hopeful sign for motorists.

One of those motorists, 20-year-old Buffalo resident Bobby Johnson, rolled up to the Kwik Fill and handed the attendant 10 bucks. It would be enough to get him to his job in Niagara Falls and back.

Not too long ago, Johnson would have filled the tank of his 1995 Pontiac Bonneville. But now, he resorts to refueling almost every day, buying $5 to $10 of gas at a time and hoping that the next station's prices will be lower.

Gas prices are heavily influenced by the cost of crude oil, and the price for crude has fluctuated this year, said Michael Doyle, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council.

The price for a barrel of crude oil closed at $51.46 Tuesday. That adds up to about $1.26 per gallon of gas in Western New York, before adding in costs for refinery, distribution and a host of taxes.

In addition, developing industrial countries like China and India contribute to greater industrial demand for oil. That also drives costs up.

Domestically, the need for refineries to produce special fuel blends and the volatility caused by events like the recent refinery explosion in Texas also hurt us.

"The market is so tight right now," Doyle said, "that any disruption in the refinery and distribution system can send the market in a tizzy."

As a result, a number of drivers interviewed Tuesday said they were starting to buy fewer gallons of gasoline at a time instead of topping their tanks. And more are beginning to consider more fuel-efficient cars as new purchases.

Heather Hawkins, a senior at Kenmore West High School, pulled her Chevy Corsica into the Delta Sonic on Delaware Avenue. As a high school student with three part-time jobs, she has discovered she is being forced to buy fuel more often because the few bucks she spends on gas don't get her as far as they used to.

"It's a pain in the butt," said Hawkins, 18. "It's kind of ridiculous if you have three jobs and can't afford gas."

Believe it or not, while today's gas prices have motorists fuming, the current prices still fall below the "true" national record for gas prices when adjusting for inflation. In March 1981, motorists paid the equivalent of $3.09 per gallon when adjusting the 1981 prices for today's buying power, the Energy Information Administration said.

Small comfort.

Rethinking family trips

Despite Delta Sonic's relatively attractive gas prices, Marilyn Wetter of Getzville still groaned as she squeezed the lever on her pump and watched the digital display count upward. The Honda Accord owner said she was rethinking some of her family's trips this year because of the cost.

Hawkins, meanwhile, said she's looking into trading in her Corsica for a fuel-sipping compact car this summer.

"This one eats up my gas," she said.

Others seem to share her considerations.

Sales of truck-based SUVs made in North America were down nearly 20 percent in January and February, amid ongoing news about gas prices, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. Automakers are slapping larger incentives on these larger vehicles to keep consumers buying, said Jesse Toprak of the Edmunds.com automotive site.

Meanwhile, market analysts note that the industry's smaller and more fuel-efficient SUVs and "crossover" vehicles continue to gain in popularity. Wait lists now exist for some hybrid cars that blend gas and electricity for even greater economy, and the automakers have announced plans to unveil a broader range of hybrid cars within the next few years.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com and mglynn@buffnews.com

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