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Gas prices up; drivers cut back

Stations say some aren’t filling tank

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As gas prices around the country soared to an average $3.77 a gallon on Monday, many stations are feeling the effects of price-weary drivers as business drops with each uptick in cost.

For five weeks in a row, they have bought less gas than they did a year ago. Drivers bought about 2.4 million fewer gallons for the week of April 1, a 3.6 percent drop from last year, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks the volume of gas sold at 140,000 service stations nationwide.

Ray Pirzadeh, who owns a Citgo station in Northeast, said his business takes a hit every time the prices go up.

"It's down for sure," he said. "It's hurting business. People have to spend more money, they can't afford it."

Mr. Pirzadeh said most drivers spend the same amount, typically $30 to $40, but they buy less gas. They also have less money for in-store purchases like snacks and drinks.

"We're not operating at a loss, but we're in a very, very tough situation," he added.

About 70 percent of the nation's major gas station chains say sales have fallen, according to a March survey by the Oil Price Information Service. More than half reported a drop of 3 percent or more — the sharpest since the summer of 2008, when gas soared past $4 a gallon. Now it's creeping toward $4 again.

Station owners are being "nickled and dimed to death" by consumers because of these price hikes, said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend.

In the District, those who choose to continue filling up their tanks pay an average of $56.55 a week, Mr. Townsend added, or about $65 a month more than last year at the same time.

So the response from many drivers is to pay the same amount for less gas, as opposed to filling up their tanks.

Ben Zerihun, who lives in the District, said he is buying 10 percent to 15 percent less gas as the prices go up.

Others try to squeeze every ounce of gas out of their vehicles before refueling.

District resident Sandra Silver said she waits longer to refuel. Before, she might have filled up at half-a-tank, but now she waits until it gets closer to the quarter mark.

"I pretty much wait until it gets all the way to a quarter tank," she said.

Mike Smith, 34, from Accokeek, Md., drives about 60 miles a day and waits until his tank drops to the quarter mark before he refuels.

But Mr. Townsend warns against this. He said the gas pump in most vehicles works harder when the fuel drops below half a tank, so the gas will run out quicker. This also can cause the gas pump to burn out, which costs $500 to $1,600 to replace, he added.

"If you run too low, you can ruin your fuel pump," he explained. "It works harder when it has less gas in it."

Miss Silver said she is aware of this.

"When it's full, it takes a little bit longer to get to half," she said. "Then once it hits half, it does seem to go really, really fast."

AAA Mid-Atlantic generally notices an increase in the number of customers who run out of gas while driving when gas prices jump. So far in April, 52 drivers from the District have done this, up 30 percent for the year.

But purchasing less gas or waiting longer to refuel doesn't help in the long-run, Mr. Townsend said. Smart motorists switch to the Metro system, others carpool, and many will combine multiple trips into one.

"Unless you cut back on driving," he said, "you're not doing anything by buying it in smaller quantities.

But not every gas station struggles when the prices go up. Some are weathering the storm quite well.

Capitol Hill Exxon, a full-service station in the 300 block of Pennsylvania SE, has raised prices about 20 cents per gallon since the beginning of the month, but that hasn't slowed business. On Monday, the price sign was at $4.29 a gallon, 52 cents above the national average, with drivers lining up.

The station's regular customers — who include members of Congress — usually don't face the same pressing financial concerns of typical drivers.

"We have a lot of regular customers that are going to come every day anyway," manager David Woodall said. "We're convenient to them."

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