Free gas giveaway in Chicago causes traffic jams stretching for blocks

The gas station shimmered up ahead, like an oasis for the woman’s thirsty vehicle — a tantalizing half-dozen car lengths away.

She’d been waiting for 2 1/2 hours Thursday morning to get some of mayoral candidate Willie Wilson’s free gasoline, from a BP station at Pulaski Road and Montrose Avenue. But then a Chicago police officer directing traffic told her she was in the wrong lane. He wouldn’t let her cut in.

“F–k!” shreeked the woman, repeating the expletive over and over.

The woman’s futile shouts were soon lost in the cacophony of car horns heard up and down a line of cars that stretched as far as the eye could see south of Pulaski along Elston.

It perhaps wasn’t surprising, given the skyrocketing price of gas.

“Relax!” barked a police officer at a man who was a little too eager to fill up his tank.

A Cadillac pulls into the BP station at Montrose and Pulaski, one of 10 stations where businessman and mayoral candidate Willie Wilson was giving gasoline away on Thursday morning, March 17, 2022. Wilson said he was spending $200,000 on the free gas.

A Cadillac pulls into the BP station at Montrose and Pulaski, one of 10 stations where businessman and mayoral candidate Willie Wilson was giving gasoline away on Thursday morning. Wilson said he was spending $200,000 on the free gas.

Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Wilson said he was donating $200,000 worth of gas in $50 increments to anyone who claimed a spot in line at 10 participating stations across the city, framing the giveaway as a way “to alleviate some of the pain that Chicagoans are experiencing because of the highest fuel prices in 14 years.”

An average gallon of regular gasoline in Chicago has climbed from $3.28 last year to $4.84, according to AAA. That means the drivers who waited for a free fill-up likely got just over 10 gallons.

The giveaway started at 7 am and ended when all the money was spent.

Neha Baig, one of the gas station owners, had a big smile on her face.

“It’s great for the community to come together and feel like they are being helped out in any way possible,” Baig said. “Definitely, for us to have this exposure … it’s great to have everyone here.”

But amid the rush, there were cursing drivers, occasional fender-benders and — at the Pulaski and Montrose location — at least a half-dozen patrol cars directing traffic.

“This helps a few people and hurts a lot,” grumpled another driver who was stuck in traffic, but was not waiting for free gas.

Still, there were plenty of grateful drivers.

“A lot of people are struggling,” said a woman, identifying herself only as Kathy. “So for something like this to be available, and for someone to do such a wonderful thing, it’s very, very nice.”

Police officers help manage traffic as drivers wait in line for free gas Thursday morning at a station near Pulaski Road and Montrose Avenue.

Police officers help manage traffic as drivers wait in line for free gas Thursday morning at a station near Pulaski Road and Montrose Avenue.

Phil Flynn, a senior account executive at the PRICE Futures Group, predicted that Americans will continue feeling the pain at the pump “for some time to come.”

Flynn that while the demand for gas has jumped after tanking when the pandemic hit, supply has fallen to “a historically low level” as domestic producers have faced federal drilling moratoriums, promises of higher taxes and regulations, a lack of investment and other issues . The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the “panic-buying” that followed, has only made matters worse, he noted.

“I think we’re in this new era of higher gasoline prices,” he said.

‘This was irresponsible and reckless’

After traffic came to a halt outside the gas stations Thursday morning, Wilson was asked if he regretted causing the jams. Wilson told reporters he wished only that he had donated more gas.

Wilson later said he’s tentatively planning another giveaway next week. Wilson’s campaign said it plans to work with the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

“We went out to do good, to help the needy and to help the poor and the people who can’t get to work to take care of their families…,” he said. “For those who were talking about traffic, maybe they have money enough to get gas and to get to work.”

Wilson said the same complainers aren’t griping about White Sox or Chicago Bulls game day traffic.

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) complained the giveaway at a station in Rogers Park caused a “traffic disaster.” She said she would ask the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection if Wilson should be required to get special permits in the future for similar giveaways.

“This was irresponsible and reckless of Dr. Wilson and the gas station owners,” Hadden said on Twitter.

The city does not require a business license or permit to host gas giveaways, a spokesperson for the Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection told the Sun-Times later Thursday.

Chicago police and fire officials said they haven’t been notified of any incidents related to the giveaway, though there were scattered reports over police radio of people cutting in line and arguing.

Contributing: Tom Schuba

Besides paying for the gas, Willie Wilson also had people helping pump it.

Besides paying for the gas, Willie Wilson also had people helping pump it.

Gas was given away at the following stations:

  • Amstar, 368 E. Garfield Blvd.
  • Citgo, 9155 S. Stony Island Ave.
  • Marathon, 1839 E. 95th St.
  • Citgo, 1345 N. Pulaski Road
  • Gulf, 9901 S. Halsted St.
  • Mobil, 2800 S. Kedzie Ave.
  • Amoco, 7201 N. Clark St.
  • BP, 4359 N. Pulaski Road
  • Marathon, 340 S. Sacramento Blvd.
  • Falcon, 43 N. Homan Ave.
Lynette Boyd-Peoples, had been waiting in line for hours for free gasoline in Rogers Park when her car broke down.  The gas giveaway was sponsored by mayoral candidate Willie Wilson.

Lynette Boyd-Peoples, had been waiting in line for hours for free gasoline in Rogers Park Thursday morning when her car broke down. The gas giveaway was sponsored by mayoral candidate Willie Wilson.

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