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Trying to ease pump pain

From The Eagle

By Selena Hernandez

Published: Sunday, June 15, 2008

Photo of trucks and sign of gas prices

Hilton Butchard cringed as he watched the numbers on the gas pump climb.

"It's up to 80 bucks right now, and it's still going," the Texas A&M student said as he pumped gas into his 2004 Nissan Armada at a College Station Citgo recently. "My next car isn't going to be a V8."

Gas prices have increased all over the nation, with the average near $4 per gallon.

Butchard, who spends $200 a month for gas, now plots his trips for the day and tries not to deviate from his plan.

And he's not the only one changing his habits because of higher gas prices.

Bicycle sales have gone up, ridership on public transportation has doubled and A&M -- the area's largest employer -- is asking its employees to carpool.

On June 6, the price for a barrel of oil surpassed $138. Since then, the price has gone down to about $136 per barrel.

But gas prices are still going up.

AAA's national average for regular self-serve gas is $4.06, with the Texas average at $3.93, up nearly 30 cents from last month and almost a dollar from last year.

In Bryan-College Station, gas is hovering near $4 at some stations.

The Associated Press reported last week that summer gas prices were expected to peak at $4.15 per gallon and to remain near $4 into 2009.

Richard Barnes, owner of BCS Bicycles, said business has been brisk in the past few months.

"We've had our best May in nine years, and we are up 36 percent for June," he said, attributing the increase in business to gas prices.

Barnes said Bryan-College Station can be an easy place to commute with the right bike.

"By biking, you can save a lot of money," Barnes said. "Once prices start going up, people start looking at the cost."

John McBeth, president and chief executive of the Brazos Transit District, which has 14 buses in the Bryan-College Station area, said ridership has more than doubled from a year ago.

Last summer, there were about 20,000 people riding the bus each month, and now there are 42,000 riders each month, he said.

A lot of that is because of first-time riders, he said.

"People are telling us they are using the bus because of the gas prices," McBeth said. "From what we see, people are using about $40 of gas a week just to get to and from work."

For students, faculty and staff at A&M, that number can be even higher.

"There are members of our faculty that don't live in town," said June Broughton, the university's transportation service communications and marketing manager. "Some live in Caldwell or in The Woodlands area."

Last fall, the A&M transportation department launched a free ride-sharing service called AlterNet Rides.

Broughton said with the rising gas prices, the popularity of the program has increased.

"We are seeing a lot more activity," she said.

Through the program's Web site, students faculty and staff members can contact others who are looking to carpool or share a ride. Users can list their destinations and note whether they need a ride or are offering one. Users can also specify smoking and radio preferences.

Last week, there were nearly 100 rides listed on the student list and almost 75 rides listed for faculty and staff.

Broughton said there has been about a 50 percent increase in the site's use in recent months.

A&M graduate student Chris Elrod said he's been carpooling with a friend recently to try to cut back on gas.

Elrod, who spends about $140 a month for gas for his 1996 Cadillac Eldorado, said he was thinking about getting a more fuel-efficient car.

"I was originally going to get a truck, but with the gas prices they way they are, I'm looking more at a sedan," he said.

Bryan resident Billy Evans said he spent about $450 a month at the pump filling his Dodge truck but tried to ride his motorcycle when he can.

His truck uses diesel, which costs almost 60 cents more than regular-grade gasoline.

"I don't know why it's more expensive," he said. "It's cheaper to make than anything else."

Jennifer Mathews, a stay-at-home mom with four children, said she had cut the gas bill for her sport utility vehicle to about $240 a month by running all her errands at once, walking and postponing the family vacation. Spending all the money on gas just wasn't worth it, she said.

"It's ridiculous how much gas is. We're trying to figure out an alternative, but with four kids, our choices are limited," Mathews said.

Bryan resident Eric Cooper said it cost him about $50 each time he goes to fill up his 1996 Mazada 626.

He said he was not running the air conditioner as much and was riding his bike more often.

"I'm thinking about buying a scooter," he said. "It's just ridiculous."