Californians cut back on gas usage

SThe Associated Press
Thursday May 17, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Where’s all the outrage? 

California motorists are paying some of the highest gasoline prices in the nation, averaging $2 per gallon for regular unleaded, according to a report released this week by the Automobile Club of Southern California. 

But they aren’t deluging consumer groups or politicians with complaints as they have in past years. 

Only about 15 people joined a protest Wednesday outside a gas station in South Central Los Angeles, where a grass-roots group called on President Bush and Gov. Gray Davis to temporarily suspend state and federal gasoline taxes. 

“That is breaking my pocket every day. I can’t even afford to give my kids money like I used to,” said Arlena Atkins, a mother of six who works as a security guard.  

“I don’t have no other choice but to go and pay for the gas.” 

“Why tax senior citizens? Why tax the poor?” said Lowe Barry, co-chairman of Citizens Against Higher Prices, estimating the taxes add 40 cents to 65 cents to the price of a gallon of gas. 

Elsewhere, motorists preferred conservation to controversy. 

The price has hurt “my fast-food lifestyle,” said Wayne Sanford, pumping $37.96 worth of gas into his battered Jeep Cherokee at a Los Angeles station. “I just stopped eating out.” 

A fill-up costs him $10 more than it used to, he said. 

Why aren’t more people outraged? 

“The economy’s better. People can actually afford it,” he said, but added jokingly: “I think I’ll be on the bus once it gets to two-fifty.” 

Prices have jumped 40 cents since mid-February. Some officials have predicted they will begin dropping again around Memorial Day, the traditional kickoff to the summer driving season. Jeffrey Spring of the Auto Club noted that prices have yo-yoed in recent years. 

“I think people are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” he said. “We haven’t seen any major changes in how people are planning their (summer) travel.” 

But daily sales are down about 25 percent at Malibu Texaco on the Pacific Coast Highway, which charges $2.09 for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline. 

“When your rent is $13,000 a month, 600 gallons a day counts,” owner Hans Shahidi said. 

Customers “complain constantly,” he added. 

As for summer, “I’m looking at hopefully warmer weather. I don’t have anything else to look forward to,” he said. “It’s out of everybody’s hands and we are not the ones who can change anything, you know?” 

In Blythe, a desert town on the way to the Colorado River, the price at one Chevron station was $2.15 per gallon, among the highest in the state. 

Sales have fallen 15 percent to 25 percent in the past month, said a manager who only identified himself as Michael. 

“Right now, I have no cars on my islands. You could fire a cannon across here,” he said by telephone. 

His customers are grumpier, too. 

“We are ground zero. We get all the complaints: ’It’s highway robbery. You guys should be ashamed of yourself.’ Like I’m sitting here making a ton of money.” 

Although experts blame many factors for contributing to price hikes, the gas station manager said he believes it is a deliberate ploy of oil companies. 

“They’re gonna hike it up to probably $2.50 and then they’re gonna come down to $2.25 and we’ll all be pleased.” 

Don’t expect consumers to rise up and demand change, said Harry Snyder, a senior advocate for the West Coast office of Consumers Union in San Francisco. 

“The public is not outraged about this at the present time,” he said. “I think people have just gotten used to the fact that greed is going to dominate the marketplace.” 

California’s car-centered culture plays a role, too. 

”’I don’t go anywhere my wheels don’t go. The cost is just a pain ... but so what?’ That’s the mentality.” 

“Basically, you can’t lead a boycott. People need to drive their cars to work,” he added. 

But Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Los Angeles, sees a backlash coming. 

“I think the public is in a state of sticker shock over skyrocketing energy prices, whether it’s natural gas, electricity or motor vehicle fuel,” he said.  

“I think it’s going to take a couple weeks for this to sink in, and then I think we’ll have a ratepayer revolt in the streets this summer.”