Sen. Bernie Sanders came out yesterday with another salvo in his War On Gas Prices. This time, the dastardly socialist is using facts.
For those just tuning in, Sanders has been raising a stink for months about the disparity between gas prices in the greater Burlington area and other parts of the state. He’s leveled accusations of price gouging against the four companies that own the majority of Chittenden County gas stations and thus, presumably, have significant price-setting power.
In the absence of tangible action, and amid continuing excuse-making by one of the Gang of Four, conservative moneybags and failed political candidate Skip Vallee*, Sanders has launched a website tracking gas prices in Vermont and offering proof that prices are consistently higher in Chittenden County and points north.
*In an e-mail to the Associated Press, Vallee claimed that “We are competitive in every market we are in.” Well yeah, that’s kinda the point, Skipper; you meet prevailing prices, but you don’t go lower unless you’re forced to do so by others.
Bernie’s website includes a lot of useful information for consumers, and resources on the broader issues in play.
There’s a chart showing the persistent gap between average prices in Burlington and average prices across the state. There’s a pair of lists: one with the best prices in northwestern Vermont, all between $3.56 and $3.59 per gallon, and the other with the best prices anywhere in the state, ranging from $3.38 to $3.44. The lowest prices in Vermont, as of this writing, are all in Springfield, Ascutney, Ludlow and Middlebury. I could see an argument for lower prices in Springfield and Ascutney, located along I-91 relatively close to New England ports. But why Middlebury? It’s a small, remote market.
Well, actually, we know why Middlebury’s prices are lower. As Seven Days reported back in July, Middlebury is home to Champlain Valley Plumbing and Heating, a retailer that’s willing to lower its prices. As CVPH co-owner Bill Heffernan told 7D, “We set the tone in Middlebury. Whatever we go to, people follow.” At the time, CVPH was charging $3.40 a gallon, while prices in Burlington ranged from $3.61 to $3.72.
Sadly, Burlington lacks a price leader like CVPH; instead, the Queen City is stuck with the Skipper and his ilk, satisfied to be competitive within the terms of their oligopolistic market. (Even as he continues to fight Costco’s effort to build a gas station off I-89 in Colchester. A curious move by such an ardent champion of competition.)
Joseph Choquette, a lobbyist for the Vermont Petroleum Association, kinda let the cat out of the bag when he told the Freeploid that prices are based on customers’ willingness to pay. Or, in other words, “we’ve got them over a barrel.”
“How are you going to force prices down if people are willing to pay them?” Choquette posed.
…He offered as well that people pay more for gasoline because they want other services or geographic convenience.
Yeah, like the “geographic convenience” of not driving from Burlington to Middlebury to fill your tank. Or the “geographic convenience” of Burlington’s often-fierce traffic: who wants to drive across town, or even a couple miles away, in hopes of saving a nickel a gallon? Not many. Burlington, with its traffic, relative affluence, and ownership concentration, seems to be ideal ground for a noncompetitive market that gives sellers a big edge over buyers.
And as for Choquette’s question, how’s this for an answer: You can force prices down through a combination of public embarrassment and the dogged determination of Bernie Sanders.