Competition grows fierce among local gas stations


STAFF REPORT

Few are complaining about area pump prices, but a peek at neighborhood stations and fuel-saver Web sites shows that location is everything when filling up.

With average high fuel prices at $2.06 in the Mahoning Valley, drivers might be best served driving south to Columbiana County to fill their tanks. The county boasts the lowest fuel prices in the Valley — as low as $1.59 near Salem’s Wal-Mart on Thursday — and people there owe it to good old-fashioned American competition.

“You get a lot of company operated stations that compete hard for volume there,” said Fred Rosell, a spokesman for the Oil Price Information Service. “Companies like that can control price in multiple stations. ... That’s why you tend to see those stations react quicker to the wholesale price moves than other markets where it’s more of ... [a] slow-up, slow-down thing.”

Benchmark crude fell as low as $48.50 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, levels last seen May 18, 2005, when oil hit $46.80 a barrel. Meanwhile, prices at the pump fell again overnight nationally, close to $2 a gallon, with the average price in 23 states even less than that.

That’s great for customers such as James Oates, who drives a bus for the Community Action Transit System, and Alisa Saltsman, both of Salem, who filled up for $1.69 at the Speedway on West State Street in Salem on Wednesday.

For residents in Pennsylvania, prices are higher, prompting motorists to consider hopping the state line for a cheaper fill.

Bev Powell, the director of communications for AAA East-Central, said the variance in prices between Pennsylvania and Ohio can be explained. While the Keystone State imports its oil at the New York Harbor, the Buckeye State gets oil in directly from the Gulf.

“That’s why when the storms came a couple of months ago, people saw a spike in the gas prices in Ohio, [unlike prices] in Pennsylvania,” Powell said.

Also a price factor in Pennsylvania: taxes.

Powell said that state and federal taxes account for a 4.3 cent base-price difference in fuel between the states. Ohio taxes residents at a rate of 46.4 cents per gallon of gas, versus Pennsylvania’s 50.7 cent tax rate.

As for the wide range of prices in local markets, she said AAA has found the trend to be nationwide.

“There’s a big variance in all of the states we track,” Powell said. “As the prices go up and down, we see pretty big differences everywhere.”

As of Thursday, AAA indicated that the average gas prices in Ohio were near to those of the Mahoning Valley, although stations in Columbiana County offered deals below the average.

Pump prices in the Shenango Valley, however, were among the highest — and above the state’s average for Pennsylvania.

Still, experts said deals can be found where the fuel providers are strong competitors.

Robert Calmus, a corporate communications director for Marathon Oil Corp., said local competition is a “very, very aggressive business.”

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