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Shock at the pump

It came down to a choice the other night — do I pay $6 to fill up the gas tank on my motorcycle or $23 to fill up my car? I went with the $6, figuring I can get better mileage on the bike and fill up the car another day.

Luckily I could make a choice. There’s a lot of people who can’t.

Every day’s a record

“What we are looking at is that we are reaching uncharted territory where we’re at a level of prices never seen before,” according to Janet Ray, Washignton/Inland American Automobile Association spokeswoman. “Every day is a new record high.”

On Thursday, the average price of regular gas in Bremerton was $2.04 with some stations charging as much as $2.29 for premium.

“It’s crazy,” Ray said. “The interesting part is when you look at market-place reasons, there’s nothing that should push the prices this high. Crude prices aren’t any higher than they were at the start of the Iraq conflict.

“It’s a question that has to go to the oil industry on how high these prices are going to go.”

The biggest winners in this hike at the pumps are the oil companies. Chevron Texaco Corp., the nation’s second-largest oil company, saw its profits jump 33 percent in the first quarter this year.

Ray said it comes down to an economic decision on how much people will pay for their gas. Since there isn’t a shortage similar to what happened in the gas crisis of the 1970s, oil industry watchers say OPEC production will remain flat at 25.69 million barrels a day through this month.

“People are still looking at buying sport-utility vehicles,” Ray said. “How quick can people change habits regarding energy habits in a short term? What’s going to happen in the next six months or a year is going to determine if fuel economy becomes part of the agenda.”

Options available

The hottest car on the market right now isn’t a giant-sized SUV — it is the Toyota Prius, a gas-electric hybrid sedan now in its second generation.

But you can’t go out and buy one today. According to Chuck Scott, a salesman at Heartland Toyota, it can be a four-to-six-month wait depending on options.

“Half the customers coming in are asking about the Prius, it’s the hottest thing out there. It’s larger (than the previous model), truly a five-person car that’s very practical, hybrid-technology aside.”

Scott said the Prius gets about 512 miles on $20 of gas and local drivers of the five-passenger car are getting 50-plus mpg.

The Toyota Hybrid System uses an electric motor to get around town. Once the vehicle reaches 30 mph, the gas engine seamlessly kicks in. “There’s a technique to driving them to get the best fuel economy,” Scott said. More selling points are the car’s reliability and near non-existent emissions.

Other options for the gas-thrifty car shopper include the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda Insight, which gets the best gas milage in the U.S. according to the EPA.

Taxing the system

Fuel price increases are expected taking a toll on the Central Kitsap School District’s transportation department. Its fleet consumes about 200,000 gallons of fuel a year, with the brunt of that being consumed by nearly 100 buses. Fuel has increased in price from about 75 cents a gallon at the beginning of the 2002-03 school year to more than $2 a gallon.

In the past two months fuel costs have increased to $28,000 per month or about $10,000 more than the district typically spends, said Doug Sander, director for CKSD transportation.

“It’s a significant increase to the district,” he said.

While the school district is exempt from paying federal fuel taxes, they do pay state taxes and sales taxes on the fuel they buy from a wholesaler which is a "huge cost of doing business," Sander said.

The 40-foot buses get the same gas mileage as the smaller ones — 8-10 miles per gallon of diesel.

“They are not doing that much worse than a SUV or big pickup truck in city driving,” Sander said. Each bus is equipped with a 100-gallon gas tank that must be kept at least half full in case of a mass evacuation.

In addition to the diesel, the district consumes about 12,000 gallons in unleaded gasoline for various vehicles.

Fuel drops are made to the district about every other week at about 8,000 gallons each. One would think the fuel costs would diminish during the summer, but expanded programs will have the district running 13 buses, more than double what it was two years ago.

“Costs have increased so dramatically ... We could be staring at a $70,000-$100,000 increase,” in fuel costs per year, Sander said. While gas-saving measures such as limiting idling time have been helpful, Sander said the district will have to look at options such as consolidating routes.

— Tracey Cooper contributed to this report.

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