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Maui life marred by costly gas

The average price is close to $4 a gallon. The idyllic island depends on imports.

March 15, 2008|From the Associated Press

WAILUKU, HAWAII — "Maui no ka oi" is a popular Hawaiian saying that means Maui is the best. Mike Sweeney recently moved to this idyllic island from Denver and experienced the other side of paradise with his first visit to the gas pump. Maui is also No. 1 in the nation in gasoline prices.

"After seeing the total, I won't be smiling," Sweeney said as he watched the numbers on the Chevron pump spin faster than a slot machine.

The pump finally stopped at $97.20, which put 24 1/2 gallons in his Chevrolet Avalanche.

He was elated about living on Maui and being reunited with his supersized, black pickup truck, which just arrived from Colorado, but he wasn't thrilled about paying nearly $4 for a gallon of regular.

While the price of oil climbs above $110 a barrel, most Americans dread the day they will have to pay $4. On this tropical island and a few stations in California, $4 gas has already arrived, straining the pocketbooks of residents and businesses.

Maui is on the verge of becoming the first area in the nation to average $4 for a gallon of regular. The average price in Wailuku reached $3.943 on Friday, the highest in AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge report. At several stations, it was a penny shy of $4. In the remote coastal town of Hana, it was around $4.40 a gallon.

"Outrageous. Completely outrageous," said Janet Carone, a Wailuku resident.

The high price has hurt many families like the Carones. They're coping by driving less, carpooling or working more.

"It has a big effect because our housing is high, our food is high and the gas prices just make it worse," she said.

Other than AAA, perhaps no one on Maui tracks local gas prices more closely than Deok Lee, owner of Airport Taxi. He maintains a detailed record of gas expenses using spreadsheets on his laptop.

In just nine days, Lee had spent $300 to fuel his Toyota Sienna van. Like his drivers, the more Lee pays for gas, the less money he brings home. His pay shrinks by the day -- and by the gallon.

The cost of fuel has more than tripled since he took over the business in 1999, and it's forcing him to consider trading his van, which costs $80 to fill, for a smaller, four-cylinder car.

"Unfortunately, it's going to take away some comfort for the customers. But you gotta do what you gotta do," he said.

Lee expects many cabbies to be forced out of business if fuel prices keep rising.

Chuck Gamarata, who operates the only limousine taxi on the island, is forced to work longer hours to compensate for gas prices. He's still taking home about $10 less each day.

"You add that up over a year's period, that's thousands of dollars," he said. "It hurts. It hurts bad."

Hawaii is the most oil-dependent state in the nation, with more than 90% of its fuel coming from imported oil. The state's economy is also extremely sensitive to oil prices globally because it depends on airplanes and ships to bring in most of its goods.

Residents of Maui, which lacks a major public transit system, have long wondered why prices on the island are so much higher than on neighboring Oahu, where Honolulu gas is about 50 cents less.

"It's like we work just to pay gas," resident Yolanda Ellis said. "Funny how our gas goes up but our pay stays the same."

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