Drivers shop around for cheaper gas

Lee Terrill has dropped 35 pounds in the past two years, while pumping gas at Ashland Arco.

The 51-year-old former stay-at-home dad attributes the weight loss to the hectic pace of his job.

"It's nonstop once you get here," Terrill said. "You get a 15-minute break in the morning and a 15-minute break in the afternoon, and that's it."

With price-conscious motorists searching for the best deal, the pace has picked up at this and other Arco stations, where fuel is dispensed for 10 to 20 cents a gallon less than many of its competitors.

The Arco next to the southbound Interstate 5 entrance often had 10 or more vehicles queued up at its eight pumps at mid-morning Wednesday. Gas at the cramped station ranged from $3.699 for regular to $3.939 for premium, while across the street a trickle of cars pulled into the Texaco station where prices began at $3.869 and ranged to $4.119.

Arco's business model, developed during previous gas price run-ups, limits drivers to cash or debit card payments. Customers using their ATM cards pay a 45-cent service fee. Janelle Maples, assistant manager at the Eagle Point Arco, said her station was paying 6 percent on its credit card transactions before reverting to cash and debit card transactions last December.

Cash-carrying drivers are drawn to Arco stations in much the same way as Costco members &

who are limited to credit and debit card fuel purchases &

seeking relatively lower prices. Costco gas ranged from $3.719 to $3.919 per gallon Wednesday. A Costco manager who didn't want his name used said he noticed more activity &

and longer lines &

after gas hit $3.50 a gallon.

Ashland Arco manager Forest Altland said he noticed a distinct upturn in business in March and lines have frequently extended to the street of late.

"When they started saying gas was going to hit $4 a gallon we started seeing more people," Altland said. "Whoever predicted that did a good job."

While there are no slow days anymore, he said Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest as drivers gear up for weekend ventures.

"We're open 24 hours and it really doesn't drop off until after 10 at night," he said.

While the customer count has grown, the tanks they're filling have shrunk.

"You could really start seeing the difference a couple weeks before spring break," Terrill said. "We started seeing more Toyota Priuses and Ford Focuses. Last spring, we had tons of SUVs &

Excursions, Suburbans, Yukons &

coming in. Right now it costs about 150 bucks to fill one of those up."

For a moment, the place looked deserted with only two cars fueling up.

"It won't last long," Terrill predicted.

Indeed, within two minutes the pumps were packed.

The verbal abuse that punctuated the price shock when gas headed for $3 a year ago has abated, but drivers still grumble.

"It's just part of the job," Terrill said. "They're dropping 50 or 60 bucks two or three times a week. The only misconception is that they think we get part of the profit."

Long lines are nothing new to John Beisel. The Coburg resident worked at an Arco station when the 1973 Arab oil embargo drove up prices and created shortages, ultimately tripling pump prices.

"We were able to service cars back then," said Beisel, who was filling up on his way to Los Angeles. "It was better then because we checked the oil, tires and radiator level, today, that doesn't happen. They make money on the convenience stores and when I was working it was tires, batteries and accessories."

Californians making their way north on I-5 saw the Arco and its pumps as an oasis in the petroleum desert.

"We were up here shopping and it's nice to see the gas is cheaper," said Josh Miller of Mount Shasta City. "We paid 40 cents a gallon more in Yreka for the cheap stuff."

Ashland resident Mark Gibbons, who works at the Veterans Affairs Center in White City, said he gravitated to the Arco station after prices rapidly began escalating.

"I have to fill up once every 10 days or so," said Gibbons, whose 1993 Camry still gets 27-plus miles to the gallon. "I really try to watch my acceleration and deceleration to try to get the most mileage."

Cullen Rankin, driving a 1949 Plymouth Delux Business Coupe, was among those gassing up. The amount of money he paid to fill up Wednesday could have easily kept his car running for a month when it was new and prices were closer to a dime than $4 a gallon.

"On a good day, it gets 18 to 19 miles per gallon," said Rankin, who lives outside Talent. "The car had a replacement odometer when I bought it in 1989 and I've got 124,000 miles on this rebuilt engine. It could easily have a quarter-million miles on it and it could easily have more than that."

The Eagle Point Arco on Highway 62, where prices on Wednesday ranged from $3.699 to $3.819 has likewise been a magnet for Upper Rogue drivers.

"A while back one of our customers moved out to Shady Cove," Maples said. "He said 'You'll be seeing me more often' because of our price."

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