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Devotion To SUVs Tested At Pumps

Area's Car Choices Sharpen Gas Pain

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C01

Every squeeze of the pump is a fresh outrage. A year ago, a gallon of regular unleaded gas in the Washington region was averaging $1.75 a gallon. In March, the average crossed the $2 mark, and as of April 19, it was $2.24, according to a survey by AAA.

If drivers feel as if each drop is draining their wallets, consider what the rising prices are collectively costing the 3.9 million motorists in the region: nearly $15 million a day.

That's $3.2 million a day more than a year ago, or nearly a dollar a day more per driver, according to some calculations by regional transportation experts. Over a year, that would amount to $1.2 billion for the region.

But it's also only half the story. Washingtonians, like their counterparts across the country, are paying a lot more for gas because they are driving more guzzlers than they used to.

The average vehicle in the Washington region gets 23.7 miles per gallon, nearly a mile per gallon less than 10 years ago, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, whose staff did the calculations for the survey.

"Consumers have been getting larger vehicles, including SUVs, and the net result is that average miles per gallon has been declining," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director of the Council of Governments. "What's happening is it's taking more money out of our pockets and we have less to spend on other things."

And Washingtonians have less to spend than people across the country, because their gas mileage is worse than the 24 mpg that the average American gets.

Kirby said the local desire for SUVs and other cars that don't get good mileage isn't that different from consumer preferences across the nation; it's just that the wealth of Washingtonians has allowed them to buy the popular vehicles sooner.

"The SUV thing took over very quickly here," he said. "Clearly we don't need to have as large vehicles. . . . And if people knew these prices were coming, they wouldn't have bought a lot of these vehicles."

Will Dossel is spending about a dollar a day more than he used to on his commute between Woodbridge and Arlington, even though he recently upgraded to a Volvo wagon that gets about 30 mpg. That means he has less money to give to his church.

Nevertheless, Dossel said he sees an advantage to high gas prices.

"Part of me is going, well, good, maybe this will force SUV folks to rethink their purchase options," he said. "Maybe we'll see a little bit less of them on the road."

That's definitely true for Scott Travis, who drives an Acura 3.2 TL that averages 23 mpg. He knew a good chunk of his paycheck was going for the premium gas his car requires, but he didn't realize just how much until he looked at a summary of purchases on his credit card.

"I looked at the gas station total and, oh my God, just for me it was over $100 a month," Travis said.

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