- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Drivers stopping yesterday at the Watergate Exxon gas station viewed it as their last resort.

The station is convenient to commuters turning left off Rock Creek Parkway onto Virginia Avenue in Northwest. And most describe the service station and auto-repair shop as clean and service-friendly.

But at $2.29 for a gallon of regular, $2.39 for midgrade and $2.49 for premium yesterday, it has some of the highest prices in the District.

Bruce Saunders pulled up in a Chevrolet Astro van he drives for his part-time job with an organic farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

“I’m about to run out; otherwise I would have waited until I got into Virginia because it’s 10 to 15 cents cheaper there,” Mr. Saunders said.

He filled up the van to save time, spending $34.30. “I figure it’s not worth the stop to save $3 to $4. Plus it was less than the $46 I expected to pay,” he said.

A State Department employee, who would not give her name, parked her Mazda Miata next to one of the station’s four pumps because it was the first station she saw.

“I’m only stopping because the tank is empty,” the driver said, before noticing the Watergate Chevron station across Virginia Avenue was selling regular at $2.23 per gallon.

“Well, I’m already here,” she said with a shrug.

Although consumers tend to cut back on their driving when gas prices rise, Exxon station co-owner Roy Bouharb said he has not seen business lag in the past month although local prices have risen 27 cents since the end of April.

He said he has at least 20 to 50 customers a day at the station, which is open from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

By comparison, the Spring Valley Exxon station on Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest has several hundred gas customers daily, an attendant estimated.

Gasoline customers make up about half of the Watergate Exxon station’s sales. The rest is from the repair shop, which is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., inside the brick building adjacent to the Watergate West building.

Rod Alba, a lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association, drove up to the two-lane gas station because he was close to an empty tank. “I’m not really cutting back on driving,” even though gasoline prices nationwide are averaging record highs of $2.06 this week, he said.

In the Washington area, the average price for a gallon of regular reached $2.04 yesterday.

But Mr. Alba, who paid $35 at the pump, was quick to say he stopped at the Exxon only because of convenience.

Customers are more inclined to come to the station because of its location and service, Mr. Bouharb said. Prices are high because of the station’s small size and high rent.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for motorist group AAA Mid-Atlantic, called the prices “outrageous.”

“I just passed another Exxon station in the District where the regular price was $2.15” a gallon, he said yesterday while driving.

Mr. Bouharb said the station tries to make up for the high price with services, including pumping the gas, cleaning the windshield and checking the oil.

Most of the people stopping in tend to be elderly or in the higher-income brackets, Mr. Bouharb said. The station also sees a fair number of lost tourists. Two cars pulled up separately in a five-minute span yesterday to ask for directions.

“You get a lot of that because it’s easy to get turned around on this road,” he said after directing two women on the quickest way to Interstate 395.

But not all customers yesterday were driving on empty.

Brian Petty, a records manager at a D.C. law firm, has been filling up his Honda Accord at the station regularly since 1995.

Mr. Petty said record prices, which have him spending about $100 a week on gas, are not cutting into his budget, although he did not give his annual income. “There are other places with cheaper gas, but I like the service here,” he said.

An engineering inspector, who would give only “Justin” for a name, said he could have driven farther but stopped at the station because he has an Exxon Mobil gas card through his company.

“I’m working at the Kennedy Center right now and this was the first station I saw nearby so I thought I’d go ahead and fill up now,” he said. Justin paid about $50 to fill up his truck.

While customers come in spurts at the Exxon station, there is a steadier stream of customers, primarily taxicabs, across the street at the Chevron pumps.

Watergate Chevron manager Qaisar Chaudhry said more taxi drivers come into his shop because of the lower gas prices, a bigger convenience store and clean bathrooms.

William Bolden, who has been driving taxis in the District since 1965, stopped off at the Chevron station for a quick bathroom break. The station is one of his five “must-stop” service stations.

“Restrooms are a big issue for cabbies. The [Exxon] station has a good location, but I don’t like their bathroom as much,” he said.

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