830,000 Vehicles, 50 Places To Fill Up

By Michelle García
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

NEW YORK -- Think the price of gasoline is your biggest problem? On the island of Manhattan, the problem is just finding a gas station.

When the needle on Estella Fernandez's red Kia came dangerously close to "empty," she rolled down her window and hollered to a cab driver (who else?) for directions to the nearest pump.

Try 10th Avenue and 34th or 37th Street, he suggested.

Her coordinates at the time were 24th Street and Park Avenue South in Gramercy, 16 long blocks away. Fernandez, who owns a cleaning company, headed west and north to find a gas station with a line of yellow cabs reminiscent of the gas shortage days of the 1970s.

"It's terrible, terrible!" she cried, clutching her heart. "I was going around and around for 15 minutes."

Gas stations are an endangered species in Manhattan, shoved aside by luxury developments and spiraling commercial rents. A cluster of stations sit on prime real estate that has already been rezoned from industrial to residential.

In the past few months, at least four stations have been shuttered. That means there are no more than 54 stations left to service the estimated 830,000 cars, delivery trucks and various other gas-consuming vehicles that crawl through Manhattan's urban canyons each day. It's come to the point that the city's Planning Department is examining strategies to keep the remaining stations in business.

"I don't think they will disappear completely, but I don't see stations being built because of the expense," said Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops. "I don't see anyone putting that kind of investment in it."

The numbers tend to bear this out. The island is 23.7 square miles of real estate, home to about 1.5 million people. Add to that the tens of thousands of daily commuters, and land in Manhattan becomes what water is to Los Angeles: precious regardless of looks, smell or location.

Scarcity explains, in small part, the borough's astronomical gas prices, says Bombardiere. Fewer stations equals less competition.

New York has the second-highest gas prices -- averaging $3.19 a gallon Sunday -- in the contiguous United States, after California, according to AAA. Manhattan prices are even higher.

A Gulf station near the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge tested the boundaries of the market in April, when it briefly charged credit card customers $4.50 for a gallon of premium gas and $4.26 for regular.

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