Thankful for cheaper full tanks

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

On Monday morning, the buzz in town was strong -- gas was on sale for $1.29 a gallon at Broadway Station in Cape Girardeau. Shortly after owner Steve Majeed put the sign up, more than 40 cars overflowed from the tiny lot onto the street, desperate to get gas at a price not seen in this area for more than two years.

Less than four hours -- and hundreds of thirsty cars -- later, the 6,000 gallons were gone.

"People are looking for cheap gas. Too bad it won't last," said Majeed, who wanted to empty the tanks because he wants to tear down the station to make room for a strip mall.

Now motorists are forced back to the reality of today's prices. Still, there is a good bit of news as travelers gear up for the busy holiday travel season. After spiking at more than $3 a gallon this summer, gas prices have fallen below $2 for the first time in months and experts say it could level off there for a while.

In fact, Missouri has the nation's lowest average gas price at $1.98 and the American Automobile Association reports that gas prices are down 32 cents per gallon from just one month ago, AAA spokesman Mike Right said.

Right said Missouri prices peaked in early September when prices hit $3.06 a gallon. They have been falling steadily since then, he said.

At Murphy USA and Jasper's in Jackson, a gallon of regular was $1.86. In Cape Girardeau, it was $1.92 at Rhodes, Bi-State, Kidd's and Huck's. At the Cape Girardeau Jasper's, Basic and Cash Only, it was $1.89.

Near Interstate 55, which brings more expensive fuel, gas was also less than $2 a gallon -- $1.99 at both D-Mart and BP.

Several factors account for the dip in price -- which is still 20 cents higher than last November's $1.75 average, Right said. Devastation to the Gulf Coast's many oil refineries by Hurricane Katrina and Rita has largely been repaired and output has increased, he said. That means inventories are much improved, he said. Couple that with the colder months' drop in consumer demand and that's what's causing the price slide, he said.

"Traditionally, we enjoy the lowest prices in the winter months," Right said. "We'll see if that holds up this year."

Jim Maurer, one of the owners of Rhodes 101 and Jaspers stations, said since the refineries are back online, the fluctuation in price should now be based on the price of crude, which was trading Tuesday at nearly $59 a barrel.

Still, Maurer wasn't surprised Missouri had gas prices lower than any other state.

"We typically are a pretty competitive market in Southeast Missouri and Missouri as a whole," Maurer said.

Maurer said other states have higher gas taxes. In Missouri, the state and federal gas tax totals about 35 cents a gallon.

The cheaper prices come at a good time as the holiday travel season approaches. Nationally, AAA expects 37.29 million Americans to travel 50 miles or more from home this holiday, up slightly from last year's 37 million. Of those, 83 percent will travel by car.

Still, local gas buyers are comparing prices and looking for deals. Carl Copeman of Cape Girardeau drove to Jackson, which traditionally has cheaper gas.

"Prices are still too high," he said. "But they're much better than they were. I'll be satisfied with this."

The prices also leave consumers feeling hopeless.

"It's like a loaf of bread," said Gary Miller of Jackson as he topped off his Toyota Camry. "You buy what you have to. You can't go without it."

But will America ever return to the days of $1.29 a gallon? Mike Right of AAA said it's hard to say.

"Who knows?" he said. "There are people predicting crude prices anywhere from $20 a barrel to $100 a barrel. And there will probably be another hurricane next year. So it's anybody's guess."

335-6611, extension 137

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