Question of gas prices hovers over summer season

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The rising cost of fuel might put a damper on summer travel plans nationwide, but many on the East End are counting on innovative planning, alternative transportation and an influx of summer visitors from Europe to help ease the pain.

Restaurants on Southampton’s Main Street count on their purveyors to bring in food, but Garrett Wellins, owner of the French lunch spot Silver’s Famous Restaurant, said that drivers are now tacking on surcharges of between $2.50 and $10 per delivery to cover the cost of gasoline now hovering over $4 per gallon. Some of that cost, he said, has to be passed on to his customers.

“Right now, most of my clientele is going to come regardless,” he said. “We’re very identity-specific as part of our cuisine. We’re not going to downsize to a domestic bleu cheese. My customers want foie gras from France. They want Stilton. Unfortunately, some of the pain has to be passed on to the consumer.”

Mr. Wellins said that many more European customers have been frequenting his restaurant this year than in years past, taking advantage of the strong Euro and making up for Americans who are pinching their pennies. “We’re happy to have them. They’re spending freely and are very gracious,” he said.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who has sponsored a bill to cut state gasoline taxes for the summer season, said in a press release this week that 80 percent of New Yorkers said they were curtailing their summer travel plans, and half of them are cutting back on dining out. He estimates that the elimination of the gas taxes would save drivers in New York $500 million this year.

Mr. Thiele and other Republican legislators in Albany have proposed a temporary elimination of New York’s 8-cent sales tax, 8-cent motor fuel tax, and 16-cent petroleum business tax from Memorial Day until Labor Day, giving motorists a break of 32 cents per gallon of gasoline. The bill also includes a provision to allow counties to repeal their own 4-cent taxes on gasoline.

Mr. Thiele, who represents the South Fork, said that he is concerned because the East End competes with the Jersey Shore for summer visitors from New York. New Jersey’s gasoline tax structure enables drivers to save an average of 30 cents per gallon over New York fuel prices. Though the State Senate approved a similar bill last week, Mr. Thiele said that Governor David Paterson has yet to weigh in on the proposal.

While many East End residents are waiting for their federal tax stimulus checks to pay winter fuel bills or help offset the high cost of driving, one shopkeeper in Southampton promises that his product can make a significant dent in drivers’ fuel costs.

“I can save someone $600 a month, and I don’t need Congress to approve it,” bragged Mike Crocitto, owner of East End Motor Sports on County Road 39. Mr. Crocitto said that sales of motor scooters have already increased by 20 percent over last year. The bulk of his new customers are daily commuters, workers who say that they need to change their driving habits in order to stay within their monthly budgets.

Mr. Crocitto said that Americans are far behind the international community in the way they view scooters as a mode of transportation. Many models he keeps in stock get better than 100 miles to the gallon and can travel up to 60 miles per hour. He added that, in particular, Vespa scooters provide enough storage that riders can do their grocery shopping without needing a large vehicle. He fondly recalls a recent advertisement he’d seen of an elderly grandmother riding a Vespa with her groceries on her back.

“In Italy, that’s a normal occurrence, but in America people see it and they want to write a story about it,” he said, adding that the higher fuel prices go, the more he anticipates brisk business.

The Sag Harbor School District has been able to budget to accommodate rising fuel costs in part because it was able to negotiate a bargain with the Montauk Bus Company. The school’s business administrator, Len Bernard, said that the school was able to extend its contract with the bus company for one year at an increase of only 5 percent, despite dramatically higher fuel costs.

The school also has a heating system that can operate on either oil or natural gas, depending on which is more efficient at a given time, which Mr. Bernard said will also soften the impact of rising fuel costs.

The price of books doesn’t fluctuate with gas prices, but Jane Cochran, the manager of BookHampton in Southampton, said that members of her staff are feeling the pinch in their daily commutes. Some are considering buying mopeds, but carpooling is not an option for the crew of independent thinkers from all over the East End that man the shop.

“I’m lucky. My commute is only 2½ miles,” said Ms. Cochran.

Book buyers, though, aren’t behaving any differently, and many of her regular customers have already returned for the summer season.

“I think by the time people get here, they will be doing what they always do,” she said.

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