• New York City decides to extend gas rationing
     | November 19,2012

    Gasoline rationing lasted eight days on Long Island, where it was lifted at midnight on Friday by Nassau and Suffolk County officials.

    It lasted slightly longer in New Jersey, the state that put the words “gas rationing” back into everyday use after decades and was the first to jettison it after 10 days.

    But in New York City, rationing that was scheduled to end today has been extended through Friday, even as the gas station lines that prompted it have all but disappeared.

    In announcing the decision, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg noted the major travel week ahead at a time when 30 percent of gas stations remained closed.

    In a statement, Bloomberg said that he was extending the rationing “to ensure we do not risk going back to the extreme lines we saw prior to the system being implemented.”

    The 2012 version of gas rationing has been much less painful than the last time it was imposed here and across the country amid the fuel shortages of the 1970s. Back then, rationing measures — including odd-even, which restricts gas sales to cars with odd-numbered license plates on odd days and even-numbered license plates on even days — stretched on for months and seemed to barely make a dent in the problem.

    “I was there in 1979 and it didn’t stop the gas lines,” said Sal Risalvato, who at that time owned an Exxon station in Paramus, N.J., where the lines for the pumps started four miles away. “What it did do was make a fair way of distributing the gas that was available.”

    As a result, Risalvato, now executive director of NJGCA, formerly the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association, said he was skeptical when he heard that Gov. Chris Christie was imposing rationing in northern New Jersey. “I freely admit that I was wrong, and the governor was right,” he said.

    Industry experts, government officials and gas station owners said one reason that rationing had worked so effectively this time was that, unlike the 1970s, there was not a nationwide shortage of gas. Instead, Hurricane Sandy created a temporary glitch in the regional supply line by cutting off power to gas stations and damaging a distribution network of ports and terminals that delivered gas to the pumps.

    They said that it should have been only a minor disruption because power was restored to stations and terminals were repaired. But it soon evolved into a crisis in part when drivers who were not used to being told they could not fill up when they wanted began to panic and started descending upon gas stations in droves.

    “By perceiving a shortage, they actually created one,” said Awi Federgruen, a management professor at Columbia Business School.

    Federgruen added that gas station owners who responded with their own form of ad hoc rationing — such as setting a limit of 10 gallons per customer — only reinforced the feeling that there was, in fact, a limited supply of fuel. That, he said, ultimately contributed to the long lines by forcing customers to come back for more gas and “doubling or tripling the volume of cars that need to be served.”

    The odd-even rationing countered this spike in demand, Federgruen said, by essentially dividing the population in two. He said that similar rationing measures have been adopted for mass vaccinations, and in Israel during the Gulf War in the early 1990s to distribute gas masks — in that case, to prevent long lines, people were told to pick up masks at certain times dictated by the first letter of their last names.

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