Prices dropped another cent to $2.15 on Friday at a few stations in Ashland, but with a bleak economy and the beginning of more frugal habits, drivers aren't necessarily going back to their old ways and bus ridership is as strong as ever.

When gas prices began to climb above $4 per gallon this summer, Ashlander Paul Niestrath switched from his diesel truck to the old Subaru wagon his children drove as teenagers for its fuel economy. Now that prices are plummeting, however, he's not switching back.

"I drive this little thing because it gets good mileage," he said as he was filling up at the downtown Astro 76, where regular unleaded was going for $2.16 a gallon.

Prices dropped another cent to $2.15 on Friday at a few stations in Ashland, but with a bleak economy and the beginning of more frugal habits, drivers like Niestrath aren't necessarily going back to their old ways and bus ridership is as strong as ever.

Bernadette Simon, who commutes from Eagle Point to work part-time in Ashland, stopped by Astro to buy cigarettes because it's the best deal she can find. But for gasoline, she shops only at Costco. Even with lower prices, she will settle only for rock bottom.

"I've always been like that," she said. "I'm very happy to see it only take 20 bucks to fill up my car."

Since she was paying $30 to $40 for a tank of gas earlier this summer, she's optimistic the rest of the economy will follow.

"I hope that will happen, but according to my fiancé and the news, it's going to be another year," she said.

The only change that 76 station attendant Corey Malbeck has seen in driver behavior is a few more cars and a few more tips when customers discover just how low their total bill is, he said.

"It does seem like I do get more tips because they're not spending as much on gas," he said. "The most common reaction is they can't believe it only took that much to fill them up."

Get on the bus

For those Ashlanders who have given up their four-wheeled transportation, dropping gas prices may not get them back in their cars anytime soon.

In the last year, the bus system saw a 16.2 percent increase in ridership, and the numbers of commuters on Route 10 between Ashland and Medford increased 19.4 percent, according to Julie Brown, general manager of the Rogue Valley Transportation District.

It may be early to make predictions, but lower gas prices haven't affected bus use yet, she said.

"I think people are really just waiting to see what happens with the new president," she said. "I really just don't see people spending money right now ... a lot of people are still feeling the economic problem of trying to juggle everything."

Eric Villegas, who rides to Medford nearly every day from his home in Ashland, hasn't noticed any increases in passengers, but the bus is always packed in the mornings, evenings and even around 2 or 3 p.m., he said.

"The bus is great," he said. "It's a comfortable ride and you don't have to worry about watching the road and you meet lots of interesting people."

Villegas had his car impounded and couldn't easily afford another right now, he said.

"Rent's expensive too," he added.

Judy Haas was also forced to give up driving, with a DUII more than 10 years ago, but biking and public transportation has since become a lifestyle choice, she said.

"I probably would have been clinging tenaciously to my steering wheel if I hadn't screwed up," she said.

She began riding her bike and taking public transportation and found she rather liked the bus, the relationships she forged with other riders and the relief from worrying about parking, insurance and maintenance — costs added on top of unpredictable gas prices.

With more and more people sticking with a decision to forgo their cars, Haas sees a great opportunity for improvement.

"I'm hoping as ridership increases that RVTD will be able to re-evaluate their service," she said. "I wish that the bus service was better, but with the bus stop right there, I don't have to worry about parking or anything."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.