Gas prices fuel gloom | AspenTimes.com

Gas prices fuel gloom

Chad Abraham

The numbers on gas pumps speak for themselves.At The Aspen Store on Tuesday, someone paid $62.65 for 19 gallons of gas. At the next pump over, nearly $51 had been shelled out for 15 gallons of Shell.And because of devastating Hurricane Katrina, which has shut down refineries and pipelines in the Gulf Coast, fuel prices are expected to climb even higher. Like the rest of the nation, Aspen and Pitkin County will feel widespread effects on everything from capital improvements to bus fares to fees for school field trips.A gallon of regular unleaded at The Aspen Store was $3.09 Tuesday; it was a penny less just down the road at the station on Monarch and Main.”I like to think of myself as being reasonably optimistic, but one has to wonder at what point the rising fuel costs will begin to affect economic growth,” said Roaring Fork Transportation Authority CEO Dan Blankenship.The local economy’s strength concerns him because the transit agency relies on sales taxes from every government from Aspen to New Castle except Garfield County.”If people have less money to spend for taxable retail sales, then we receive less sales taxes that we use to operate,” he said.Bus fares could rise next year by 5 to 10 percent to keep up with fuel prices, he said. That compares with 3 to 5 percent annual increases in bus fees in recent years to keep up with inflation. On Tuesday, Blankenship was reading an article on the Denver RTD transit system. It said that agency had been paying $1.11 a gallon for diesel fuel in 2004, “and they’re paying $2.07 now and budgeting for $2.22 in 2006. We’ve kind of had a similar experience,” he said.RFTA uses about 600,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, which costs the agency around $2 a gallon. Adding to the cost are new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that require the use of diesel that contains “ultra-low” levels of sulfur. That will increase the cost by about 15 percent, which the agency has factored into next year’s budget.”But I think we may have been contemplating a lower price per gallon,” Blankenship said of budget projections.RFTA’s fuel budget for 2005 is nearly $1.2 million. That will increase by 15 percent next year because of the new EPA rules, “plus probably some additional amount to account for the price increases we’re seeing now,” he said.The price of fuel is a mixed bag, Blankenship said. Higher costs hurt RFTA from an operational perspective, but they also increase interest in public transportation.RFTA has been popular over the summer. In July, ridership increased by nearly 5 percent, Blankenship said, and for the year ridership is up by about 2.4 percent.As the price for a barrel of oil briefly topped $70 Tuesday, county and city officials were watching closely.”Our budgets are already adversely impacted by the increase we’ve had, and it’s going to be even worse now,” said Brian Pettet, county public works director. “The pot of money the county’s pulling from is limited, so something else has to come off the plate in order to fuel our vehicles. The thing about it is, the sheriff’s department is not going to cut back on patrols, we can’t stop plowing the roads.”The challenge, Pettet said, will be deciding what the county can cut so it can fuel its fleet effectively.Debe Nelson, county finance director, said nonessential capital improvements could be postponed if fuel prices slice too deeply into revenues from the general fund. Her office is planning next year’s budget.”It will impact our bottom line,” she said. “What will probably happen is if it does hurt us, we’d cut capital [improvements].”That could include postponing maintenance for buildings and roads until gasoline prices drop, she said.”We’ll just have to find a way to make it work or look at ways to cut our fuel utilization,” Nelson said.Pettet said the impacts go beyond gassing up sheriff’s vehicles and maintenance trucks.”Any gas price increase just increases the cost of doing all business. Our asphalt has a large amount of petroleum in it, and we expect the cost of asphalt to increase, as well,” he said. “It just trickles down.”Diana Sirko, superintendent of Aspen schools, said the school district provides transportation for about 60 percent of the student population.”But as gas goes up, parents may utilize that more. It’s just hard to know,” she said. “But we do know certainly that our costs will go up for our activities, for all the different things we do. We’re pretty isolated and so we transport kids long [distances] to athletic events, all kinds of things.”We may have to raise the costs of field trips, etc., if prices continue to go up.”The district buys diesel fuel three times a year in bulk. A large amount of fuel was purchased at the end of school last year when prices were lower. The next fuel purchase will occur at the end of October.”So we could get lucky and have it go back down a little bit before then,” Sirko said.Mary Wunsch Greer of AAA Colorado said wholesale gas prices have gone up anywhere from 5 to 20 cents. Prices are changing so rapidly in Denver that they are higher in the afternoon than in the morning, she said.Prices are always higher in the mountains because business costs increase in the high country and the fuel has to be transported up here, Greer said. Those costs are passed on to consumers.Paul Menter, the city of Aspen’s finance director, said high gas prices will be felt everywhere.”We’re already starting to see it affect bids that we get on contracts,” he said. “Bidders are starting to say, ‘We’ll honor this bid until the end of this month. After that, we’re going to raise the prices because the cost of steel has gone up so much, the prices of plastic-based products have gone up so much.’ It’s already starting to affect everybody.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com