Queens residents are feeling their wallets get lighter at the pump amid reports of rising gas prices across the country.
Queens, as well as the rest of New York City, normally has some of the highest gas prices in the country, and the ongoing spike is likely to make commuting even more of a financial strain for drivers.
The jump follows a steady increase in prices after they had reached a low average of $1.85 per gallon in 2009. According to newyorkgasprices.com, prices dropped slightly this fall before rising again. As of a few days ago, gas prices stood at $3.95 per gallon on average, with a peak of $4.29 per gallon in some parts of Queens.
Even the lowest gas prices in Queens are relatively high. At $3.83 per gallon, the borough’s cheapest gas was still more expensive than the average gas price in New Jersey, which stood at $3.50 per gallon. Connecticut’s average gas prices were slightly higher at $3.89 per gallon, but their lowest available rate of $3.71 was still lower than that of any gas station in Queens.
New York State doesn’t make things easier: it is one of only eight states that charges a sales tax on gasoline. New York’s separate gas tax also sits at 44 cents per gallon, which is the second-highest gasoline tax rate in the country. In comparison, New Jersey has a gas tax rate of 14 cents per gallon.
Robert Sinclair of the American Automobile Association in New York said that the tax burden is likely going to remain in place.
“The state’s budget is hurting right now, so they’ll probably keep any source of income that they can,” said Sinclair, the group’s spokesman.
State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) agreed, noting that reducing or eliminating the gas tax and the gas sales tax would cut revenue that the state needs.
A number of other factors play into rising gas prices. Michael Watt of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association says that oil companies are putting the crunch on both drivers and gas station owners.
“Service stations don’t benefit as much from prices being as high as they are,” Watt said. “It’s a competitive business, so stations can only raise their prices so much before they start to hurt their profits.”
Watt also noted that the structure through which gasoline is purchased from oil companies serves to increase prices.
“Oil companies don’t deal with service stations directly anymore; they sell barrels in bulk to wholesalers who then sell the gas to stations while charging a little more,” he said.
Wholesalers played a part in the defeat of legislation to reduce the state gas sales tax.
“I’m all in favor of lower prices, but there was no guarantee in the legislation that distributors would pass any tax savings on to the consumer,” Stavisky said, explaining her opposition to the proposed tax cut.
Drivers are also paying as a result of international influences.
“Demand for gas is usually low this time of year in the United States,” said Sinclair. “However, demand in Asia and South America is particularly high, so everyone has to pay a little more as a result.”
Watt cited rising tensions in the Middle East as another factor driving higher prices.
“Every time there’s any sort of tension in that part of the world, gas prices go up,” Watt said. “We’d probably be better served finding oil sources that aren’t located in a part of the world where there’s so much tension and unpredictability.”
Gas prices are likely to keep rising as the year progresses. The summer always sees a rise in fuel costs to coincide with what is often the busiest driving season of the year. Also, many nearby oil refineries have closed in recent years, creating scarcity of product for city gas stations.
“Oil companies are getting out of that business, too,” Watt said. “They prefer not to be involved in any aspect of selling oil directly to stations anymore.”
Queens drivers are feeling the pain at the pump, but few see a real alternative.
“Unfortunately, paying for gas is one of the necessities of life now,” said Daniel Kalmann, a regular customer at the Gunral service station on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park. “I’ve started riding my bike more often, but I know a lot of people who don’t have that option.”
“I’ve had to start doing business in New Jersey just because gas is cheaper there,” Kalmann added.
Retailers are also feeling the pain at the pump. Gunral co-owner Gunther Duy said that the sudden increase in gas prices hurts his business all around.
“When gas prices are high, people just don’t drive,” Duy said. “We lose business from gas sales and from repairs as a result.”
He added, “It’s only going to get worse once the summer comes around. We’ll probably be up to $5 a gallon by then.”
The only viable way to cope with rising gasoline costs, according to Sinclair, is to use a smaller, more fuel-efficient car, but even that poses some problems for drivers.
“I have a large family and could have used a bigger car, but I’m not getting one now,” said Kalmann.
Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) proposed other alternatives, such as carpooling and taking public transportation when possible.
“I have family in Europe, where gas is twice as expensive as it is here,” Simotas said. “The way they deal with high gas prices is by not driving; they find other ways to get around.”
Stavisky suggested that tighter fuel emission standards on large, gas-guzzling vehicles such as buses and trucks could help, but not by much.
“The only real options we have are either to increase production or to reduce consumption,” Stavisky said. “There isn’t much else that we can do.”