Gas prices have yet to drive people from their cars

Rising gas prices are driving small changes for Bay Area commuters, but locals have yet to abandon their cars — despite the hit to their wallets.

Unleaded fuel prices hit $3.14 a gallon Tuesday in California, according to the American Automobile Association — the highest since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast.

Bay Area drivers visiting the gas pump Tuesday were outraged at rising prices, which hovered around $3.50 a gallon, but said they will keep driving.

“It's too damn high and they're [oil companies] making too much money,” Millbrae resident Rosemarie French said. “I have an income, so I'm OK, but I worry about people on fixed incomes or who have to make their living driving.”

Gary Edelman says he will continue to use his car — no matter what the cost.

“I would never give up driving entirely,” he said.

However, many are finding ways to make the most of the fuel they buy, including carpooling and telecommuting.

A year and a half ago, Foster City resident Pilar Lorenzana-Campo gave up her solo-vehicle commute to begin riding BART to Oakland because the combined cost of fuel, bridge tolls and parking was more than she could afford. Now she is back behind the wheel but ridesharing, which costs $5 a day — $6 less than her BART commute.

The recent surge in gas prices has strengthened her commitment to carpooling.

“Whereas before it was just convenient, now I couldn't even fill up my car on my own,” Lorenzana-Campo said.

Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at J.D. Power and Associates' Power Information Network, said statistics back up the notion that consumers aren't yet ready to change.

“Prices have to reach $4 a gallon, and until they are at that levelwe will not see any substantial change,” Libby said.

Libby added that $3 a gallon is still far below the level consumers saw in 1980 and 1981, when gas in today's dollars was the equivalent of $4 a gallon and there were substantial changes in buying habits.

Although Bay Area public transit systems are carrying more riders, officials say gas prices are only part of the equation.

BART ridership rose by 3 million in the past 10 months, BART spokesman Lynton Johnson said. Sales of MUNI fast passes rose 12.3 percent from March 2005 to March 2006, and Caltrain and SamTrans are also seeing more riders, according to agency officials.

However, those increases are not due to fuel costs alone. “When gas prices fluctuate, it makes people wonder if they want to switch to public transit,” Johnson said. “But the real reason people switch is traffic congestion.”

As consumers slowly cut back, gas stations are already feeling the pinch. Tingli Tsai, owner of the Chevron Station at 501 El Camino Real in Millbrae, said his have slumped 10 percent to 15 percent in the past three weeks. “I expect gas prices to go higher,” Tsai said. “There's nothing I can do.”

The Market, a gas station and food market located that opened across from the Millbrae BART station one year ago, is offering regular unleaded for $3.10 a gallon but losing money, manager Frank Lopez said. “The common perception is that our station is raking in money, but we're losing everything,” Lopez said. “I don't know how any mom and pop gas station is alive at this point.”

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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