Carella: In search of the priciest gas
If you want to know where pump prices are highest, pay no attention to the latest Lundberg Survey, the nation's guide to gasoline, that came out this week.
Lundberg found that motorists on Long Island, N.Y., pay the most -- an average of $3.83 for a gallon of regular gas, some 30 cents more than the U.S. average.
You'll get a more accurate survey by looking out the window as you drive by pumps in Stamford, where, according to prices at 20 gas stations listed on Automotive.com, the average is $4 a gallon.
All the cities and towns in lower Fairfield County are higher than Long Island. In Greenwich the average price is $4.03 a gallon; in Darien it's $4.17; in New Canaan it's $4.03; in Norwalk it's $3.91; Westport is $3.94; Wilton is $3.96; the one gas station in Weston charges $3.99, as does the one station in Easton; and the average in Fairfield is $3.91.
The average price for all 10 towns in lower Fairfield County is $3.99 a gallon, 16 cents higher than Long Island.
Did the Lundberg Survey, which for decades has issued reports on the nation's see-sawing gas prices, miss lower Fairfield County?
No one from the Lundberg Survey returned requests for interviews Monday and Tuesday.
It's most likely that Lundberg did miss lower Fairfield County, said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, a website that helps motorists find the cheapest gas in their communities. Volunteers post prices on GasBuddy.com from 120,000 gas stations nationwide, DeHaan said.
"Lundberg probably surveys just the largest areas and yours might not be on their radar," DeHaan said. "When companies do analysis, they tend to focus on larger areas because there's more competition, more data."
Lundberg surveys a fraction of the nation's 133,000 gas stations for its twice-monthly reports. The Associated Press reported in 2006 that Lundberg surveys 7,000 stations, or about 5 percent, but more recent stories that cite the survey say it is less. A Bloomberg Businessweek story in May, for example, said Lundberg included 2,500 stations in one of its regular surveys, or about 2 percent of the U.S. total.
In the survey released Sunday, Lundberg found that U.S. gas prices rose 9.6 cents a gallon since mid-July to an average of $3.51 a gallon. That reverses a 56-cent decline that started in early April, the survey said.
In that survey Lundberg, a California company, reported that prices rose the most -- 9.8 cents a gallon -- in that state, with the lowest average in Bakersfield, $3.67, and the highest in San Francisco, $3.80.
They apparently didn't look at Needles, Calif. You may have heard of Needles, a town of 4,844 people in the Mojave Desert on the Arizona border. "Peanuts" comic strip creator Charles Schulz lived there for a short time as a boy. Schulz drew a dog named Spike, Snoopy's brother, who lived outside Needles and got into dust-ups with desert coyotes.
DeHaan said reports on GasBuddy.com, where millions of volunteers report hundreds of thousands of gas prices each day, show the average price in Needles is about $4.60 a gallon.
"That's really high. But there are only about eight gas stations in Needles, so it most likely isn't showing up in the Lundberg Survey," DeHaan said. "There are parts of California, like your Stamford area, where gas is really expensive, but it takes so much time to average the prices in every community that companies don't do it. Analysis is tricky. It all depends on the amount of data."
The story behind the data matters, too. Gasoline in Connecticut, for example, is heavily taxed. For each gallon, motorists pay a 25-cent flat tax and a lesser known gross receipts tax that retailers pay when they buy gas from wholesalers, then pass on to consumers. These days the gross receipts tax adds another 26 cents or so to each gallon.
And remember that motorists in Connecticut and every other state pay a federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon.
So Automotive.com is reporting the latest national average of $3.49 for a gallon of regular gas, and a latest Connecticut average of $3.79. That means that if you fill up in lower Fairfield County at an average $3.99 a gallon, you pay 50 cents more than many people in the United States and, more difficult to understand, 20 cents more than the rest of Connecticut.
The Fairfield County discrepancy has been attributed to the higher cost of living and doing business here than in other parts of the state and to a practice called zone pricing in which oil companies charge certain stations more for gas if they think an area is affluent.
It may not matter whether it's Big Oil or the government taking your money as much as that it's gone.
If you get discouraged, think of the people of Needles, who pay 60 cents more a gallon than you do.
In the 1972 Three Dog Night hit "Never Been to Spain," writer Hoyt Axton lent celebrity to the little town in the Mojave Desert:
"Well I never been to England,
But I kinda like the Beatles.
Well, I headed for Las Vegas,
Only made it out to Needles."
Maybe he couldn't afford the gas.
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