AUGUSTA — Grumbling as they fill up, Maine consumers have grown used to gas prices bouncing from $3.30 to $3.80 a gallon.
But things change at $4 a gallon, said Kenneth Fletcher, director of the Governor's Energy Office.
Four dollars a gallon sets off a psychological trigger. “It's like 'Star Trek,'” the price has gone to where it hasn't gone before, Fletcher said Wednesday. Consumers react with, “'Enough is enough.' And it's a huge amount of money."
Four dollars a gallon is where some attitudes and behavior begins to change. Motorists drive less. If they can't cut back on driving, "they cut back someplace else. They aren't going out to eat or to the movies. That hurts the overall economy," Fletcher said.
Calls to Fletcher's office have picked up in recent days. “People are saying, 'What in the heck is going on?'” Many motorists don't have an option. “In Portland some young people are starting to go without cars,” Fletcher said.
Some start to think about more energy-efficient cars. When gas prices rise, “we start selling more fuel-efficient cars,” said Adam Lee of Lee Auto Malls.
High gas prices prod some to consider going from a two-car family to a one-car, or going without a vehicle entirely.
Lewiston City Councilor Craig Saddlemire, who's been car-less since 2006, said he's getting more interest from others thinking about life without their own wheels. They ask him how he does it.
“I walk the most,” Saddlemire said.
Saddlemire is a self-employed video maker, does not have children, and works from home or does most of his work within a 4-mile radius of where he lives.
A bicycle enthusiast, he rides, takes the bus, and when he needs to, he borrows a friend's car or uses a “Zipcar” at Bates College, where vehicles are rented by the hour.
He estimates he saves $7,000 to $10,000 a year by not owning a car when adding up car payments, insurance, registration, repair and gas. He gets most of his exercise from walking or biking. “That's obviously a huge personal and financial benefit,” he said.
A member of the Lewiston-Auburn Bicycle Pedestrian Committee, Saddlemire said more people are driving less and walking and biking more. “They say, 'Did you see the bike lane that went up on Ash Street?'”
Going without a car takes courage, but he said he's figured out how to do 90 percent of what he did before.
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his family has gone to one car.
"On most days I go car-less," Voorhees said. "I live near where I work and walk to work.”
But getting rid of a vehicle is a tough choice in Maine where there are not enough transportation options. Urban areas like Portland and Lewiston have bus service, but commuter transportation is lacking, he said.
“The Maine Turnpike Authority has refused to do commuter service Zoom buses,” Voorhees said. “And we were disappointed the state axed the 'Go Maine' commuter van program. There's a lot of things we still need to do.”