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Tom Jackson Columns

Pumped up by gas-price mysteries

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Published:   |   Updated: August 11, 2014 at 05:59 AM

Late into last week’s meeting of Republican rivals for two Pasco County Commission seats, Bob Robertson decided to change the subject.

Never mind taxes and impact fees and gun-show loopholes. Producing from the fold of his wallet the evening’s only visual aid — a small rectangle of paper, soon to be revealed as a gas station receipt — Robertson picked that moment to unveil his inner Elizabeth Warren.

As witnesses at the East Pasco Adventist Academy squinted to make out the pale purple printing, Robertson declared, in a tone indicating he, like the radical populist Massachusetts senator, sniffed evidence of a corporate plot against the folks, “The one thing I want to know is how I was in New Port Richey on Friday and bought gas for $3.19 a gallon, and how much we do pay for it in Dade City and Zephyrhills. That’s a different question.”

He’s right. That is a different question. It might even be a good one, because the per-gallon price in east Pasco customarily runs 20 cents higher than in Pasco west of the Suncoast Parkway.

But to suggest — given the forum, how could it be otherwise? — that it is a question worthy of investigation by the county government is at best silly and at worst a clumsy attempt to pander. You want to know what determines the price at the pump, you don’t need an office in the West Pasco Government Center, subpoena power or the ability to put it on a workshop agenda.

Instead, what you need is the phone number of the local branch of America’s largest, most influential motorist-advocacy club/business. You dial them up, ask for someone with knowledge of the Byzantine formula behind gas prices and, without even having to punch in your membership number, you get Mark Jenkins, Tampa-based project manager for AAA.

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And you ask, simply but pointedly: What, besides a double-secret conspiracy involving Big Oil and Big Convenience Stores, could possibly explain the routine gouging of the Pasco motoring public that fills up east of Interstate 75? And Jenkins will suppress a sigh that reveals he’s tackled this subject before.

Variables governing what the consumer pays are, chiefly, Jenkins says, crude oil prices, refinery costs, delivery and marketing costs and — the subject that provoked Robertson’s rehearsed complaint in the first place — taxes: federal, state and local. (The current board seems to be coalescing around some sort of hike to pay for backlogged maintenance and other perceived needs.) Tack on whatever profit the market will bear, and there’s your price, as well as the rub for east Pasco.

Like real estate, Jenkins says, the key force constraining profit is location, location, location. “Prices tend to be lower when there are a lot of stations concentrated in one area,” he says, “but in a more rural area where you drive for miles between stations, those will be able to charge somewhat more.”

Hmmm. Now what two distinct geographic regions of Pasco does that sound like?

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It doesn’t end there. Relying on motorists who put a premium on convenience, stations grouped around busy highway exits (State Road 54 at Interstate 75, for instance) can bump up prices despite proximity to competitors, confident of a steady flow of customers.

Pump-price forces are essentially a mystery to Ziad Sakr, who’s run Jade’s Auto Sale at its current location on U.S. 19 in Port Richey for nine years. What he knows for sure, however, is used-car shoppers are acutely sensitive to their rise and fall. And he has to look no further than the Sunoco station next door ($3.17 for cash) to anticipate his clients’ desires.

Not so long ago, when regular was bumping up against $4, his larger SUVs and pickups couldn’t even beg a look. “Everybody wanted 4-cylinders, 6-cylinders,” Sakr says. “No big V-8s.”

A guy comes in with a late-model Chevy Silverado, nice and loaded, says he needs something that’s better on gas. Sakr runs the numbers. The truck is upside-down. It’s worth $4,000 less than the outstanding loan. “You don’t want to do this,” Sakr says. “It’ll take you two years just to get back to even.”

The guy says, “Do you want to sell me a car or not?”

“He just couldn’t take it anymore,” Sakr says, “so we did the deal.”

Hey, we’ve all felt that pain. But a government investigation isn’t going to solve anything. Gas is always less expensive on Pasco’s west side. On the other hand, those drivers have to put up with the horror that is U.S. 19. Eastsiders should count their blessings, even those that cost 20 cents more a gallon.

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