Pain at the pump

LIHUE — JoAnn Salud can still remember when it used to cost $3 for a gallon of gas on Kauai.

That was about a decade ago.

Today, things are different.

On most days, the Hanamaulu resident said it costs her about $90 to fill up her truck’s 18-gallon gas tank using the cheapest grade of gas available.  

It is a reality that changed the commuting routine she and her daughter had when her daughter was in high school.

“I used to work in Kapaa, and when my daughter first got her license, she used to take me to work, go back home and drive back up to the North Shore … but I told her, ‘Why don’t you bring everything and go up at one time,’” Salud said on Sunday as she filled up gas in Lihue. “‘Till now, she still carries good habits of budgeting and watching her spending.”

Salud, as it turns out, is not alone.

A gallon of gas in Hawaii cost 71 cents higher than the national average, a recent report showed. And a gallon of gas on Kauai is 25 cents higher than the state average, meaning Kauai might be one of the more expensive places to fill ‘er up.

Still, at an average of $4.43 a gallon on the Garden Isle, gas prices are at their lowest point this year.

And that is good for the local economy, said Earl Kashiwagi, owner of Esaki’s Produce of Kapaa.

He said when fuel prices are low, people can afford to travel farther from home, which means more visitors to Kauai, with more money to spend.

“It’s general economics,” Kashiwagi said. “Watch the fuel prices and you won’t need to look at another indicator.”

The AAA Fuel Gauge Report for Sept. 23, showed a steady 22-day decline on the national average at $3.47 per gallon of regular gasoline.

Gas prices are down due to cheaper global crude oil prices, lower seasonal demand and reduced tension in the Middle East, the report said.

But why does it cost more here?

Hawaii remains the state with the most expensive gas in the nation because of shipping costs and its lower demand as a small market, said AAA spokesperson Michael Green.

“Kauai is even more separated from the global market in that shipments generally head to Oahu and then Kauai,” Green said. “These added shipping charges raise the final price paid by consumers.”

Kauai Island Utilities Cooperative reports the monthly price per barrel of Naptha fuel for its Kapaia power plant averaged $119.25 from October 2011 through September 2013.

The Port Allen power plant operates on diesel fuel, which averaged $146.51 per barrel over the same 24-month period.

KIUC spokesperson Jim Kelly said fuel prices are usually a month or two behind the prices people see at the pump because the orders are placed ahead of time. If there is a spike or a drop, it is usually reflected on customer billing as the price per kilowatt a couple of bills later.

“Over the past couple of years it’s been more stable than in previous years but there is still some monthly fluctuations,” Kelly said.

County spokesperson Mary Daubert said fuel prices tend to be volatile and that makes it hard to predict exactly how much to allot for the expense year to year.

“We try to keep costs down by purchasing fuel efficient or electric vehicles whenever possible, and have created a small ‘green’ motor pool of electric and hybrid vehicles that is growing in use,” Daubert said. “Over time, we hope to expand the motor pool so fewer vehicles will be required.

But it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Given that so many fluctuations in the market can be expected, the county penciled in spending more on fuel this year compared to last, not less. During the last budget process, the county added 5 percent per year to what was actually spent in fiscal year 2012 to determine its fuel budget for fiscal year 2014.

The average at stations in Lihue, Kalaheo and Poipu was $4.39, $4.41 in Kilauea and $4.69 in Princeville. Diesel prices ranged from $4.89 in Lihue to $5.39 on the North Shore.

Lihue resident Melda Dias Caoili, a Pacific Missile Range Facility security guard, said she makes the commute to Mana about five times a week and fills her truck up about every four days

Filling up her tank on Sunday, she said she’s well aware that gas is expensive in Kauai. She prioritizes her budget around it, and said she carpools when she can to save on fuel.

“A quarter tank is used up already in one day, which is $20,” Caoili said, adding she won’t go to places like Hanalei for a day at the beach unless she can catch a ride with one of her daughters.

“I think it’s too much,” Caoili said about the island’s gas prices. “Not even California is this high.”

• Darin Moriki contributed to this report.

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