March 16, 2010

Maine gas sales start to declineCONTINUED FROM THE FRONT PAGE


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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Thurs., May, 22, 2008.Gas prices soaring to $4/gallon for regular in Maine this Memorial Day weekend as seen here at the Mobil gas station on Forest Ave. in Portland.

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Gordon Chibroski

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Staff Writer

Maine gasoline sales are declining at the fastest rate in more than 15 years as pump prices continue to rise toward $4 a gallon and residents look for ways to cut back, state figures show.

The average price for a gallon of gas, according to AAA, rose to $3.85 in Maine on Thursday, up 2.7 cents from the day before and 34 cents in the past month.

Such statistics, combined with the observations of bus operators, auto mechanics, car dealers and others, indicated that Mainers are beginning to adapt.

''What we've seen lately is the rising cost of fuel is having a big impact on people's behavior,'' said Jerry Stanhope, an analyst with the research division of Maine Revenue Service.

After years of steady but slow increases in gasoline usage, he said, sales are now falling at a steady clip. ''It's accelerating in the last few months,'' Stanhope said.

So far, gasoline sales during the current fiscal year are down 3.6 percent from last year. If the trend holds for May and June, it will be the steepest annual decline in at least two decades, according to the data.

The state tracks gasoline sales because the tax on gas is a major source of funding for maintaining highways. The decline in gas tax revenue, combined with declines in other revenue because of the economy and inflation, is being watched closely, although the impacts won't be known for several months, Stanhope said.

''We'll see how this goes,'' he said.

For motorists, the more immediate issue is how to stay away from the pump.

''It's tough on everybody,'' said Katie Cripps of South Portland as she filled the tank of her Hyundai Elantra on Thursday with $3.95-a-gallon gas. ''I'm glad I didn't get an SUV.''

Cripps said she's getting her old bicycle road-worthy again and, in the meantime, trying to drive less. Plenty of other Mainers are watching their mileage, too.

April ridership on the Biddeford to Portland Zoom bus was up 93 percent from a year ago, said Ed Clifford, executive director of the Shuttlebus/Zoom service. ''It's crazy,'' he said. ''I had to double check the figures.''

With a monthly pass costing $58, a one-way ride can cost just $1.45, less than a third of what tolls and gas would cost for a typical commuter at today's pump prices.

''It's amazing how many more people are starting to take it just since I started,'' said Debbi Libby of Shapleigh.

Libby started riding the Zoom bus from Biddeford to Portland in January after 11 years of driving the 80-mile round trip commute from Shapleigh. She's cut her gasoline usage in half and, most important, figures she saves $60 or more a week.

''I'm just trying to spend less money on gas,'' she said.

Many Mainers are carpooling to work or joining van pools coordinated by Go Maine.

''Requests are coming in from all over the place,'' said Carey Kish, director of the state-sponsored commuter connections program. The organization has doubled its fleet of vans to 17 and hopes to add 10 more in the coming year, he said.

''Just about every van is full and most of them have waiting lists of varying lengths. We've got waiting lists on routes that don't even exist yet,'' he said.

Many also are trying to make their cars go farther on each gallon.

Motorists now come in daily to ask about tuneups or have their tire pressure checked, said Ervin Osborne, service manager at VIP Auto on Riverside Street. ''We're getting a lot of calls and are selling a lot of products that are designed to increase fuel economy,'' he said.

Customers, for example, often ask for high performance air filters, which can cost $20 or $30 more but can add two to three miles per gallon to fuel efficiency, according to Osborne.

It's clear motorists no longer see the record prices as a temporary inconvenience that will go away.

At Prime Toyota and Scion in Saco, buyers are coming every day looking to trade in large cars, trucks and SUVs for fuel-efficient models, said sales manager Mark Classen. Some still owe money on their gas guzzlers, but are willing to take a loss now to save on gas costs later, he said.

''Everybody's downsizing, and there's a waiting list for Priuses,'' he said.

Classen said he sold 40 of the Toyota-made gas-electric hybrids this month and will have 45 pre-sold for next month. ''Last winter, we had them on the lot'' waiting for offers, he said.

National statistics reflect that shift in the market, with SUVs quickly losing market value and fuel-efficient cars in high demand.

Small car sales increased 7.1 percent in the first four months of the year compared to last year, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. SUV sales dropped 28.4 percent, it said.

Although Mainers are clearly trying to use less gasoline, some wasteful habits appear harder to change.

Maine State Police troopers said there's no evidence that more people have been obeying speed limits since the price of gas topped $3.50. In fact, the last speeding crackdown on the Interstate nabbed several drivers going more than 30 miles per hour over the limit, said Stephen McCausland, public safety spokesman.

Travel agents at AAA in Portland have not seen major changes in travel habits and are still helping customers plan plenty of road trips to destinations such as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, said Matthew McKenzie, marketing director for AAA Northern New England. AAA is expecting a modest decrease of about 2.5 percent in Memorial Day weekend travel in the Northeast.

Emmanuel Ogak of Portland said he won't be going far.

The full-time student put $20 worth of gas into his mother's Ford Explorer on Thursday. ''I can't afford to fill it up,'' he said.

Ogak and his family only start up the SUV for necessary trips, such as to the store or the doctor's office, he said. ''I used to go visit my friends in Lewiston, but I can't afford it any more.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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Gordon Chibroski


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