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Residents tapped for gas finding alternatives

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Nationwide, the average price of regular, unleaded gasoline has hit $4.04 per gallon, but probably won't stay there long. It seems to rise each day.

The story is much the same in Henry and Clayton counties, which saw more record prices Tuesday, averaging about $4.03 per gallon, more than a dollar higher than this time last year.

Metro Atlanta is paying the highest price for gas in Georgia, which averages $4 per gallon for regular unleaded. In comparison, diesel users must pay an average $4.80 per gallon.

As prices steadily rise and break records, some area residents are attempting to save on their daily commutes.

Interest in The Clean Air Campaign's regional commuter incentive program has increased significantly, according to officials with the campaign. Applications for the Cash for Commuters Program are up 143 percent for the first five months of 2008, versus the first five months of 2007 -- from 1,303 in 2007 to 3,163 in 2008.

The program is an incentive that pays up to $180 over a 90-day period, for commuters who try carpools, transit, tele-working, and other alternatives to driving alone.

More than 3,000 have signed up for the program this year, which more than doubles the number of who signed up for the same period last year. Thirty-nine people enrolled the first six months in 2007, 146 people have in enrolled so far this year.

"Not since the gasoline shortages immediately following Hurricane Katrina have we seen such intense interest in our programs," said Kevin Green, executive director of The Clean Air Campaign. "May was a phenomenal month for enrollment, and June looks like it will be even more active."

Cash for Commuters is one of three financial incentives available to Georgia commuters through the Commuter Rewards Program. Commuter Prizes, another incentive program, awards monthly prizes to randomly selected users of commute alternatives. And Carpool Rewards provides gas cards to carpools with three or more people.

In May, The Clean Air Campaign received more than three times as many Cash for Commuters applications as were submitted in May 2007. Nearly five times as many Carpool Rewards applications were received in May 2008, compared to the same month in 2007.

Commuter Marvin Heath began riding MARTA about a month ago. "While I enjoy my job as an IT project manager, I'm an artist at heart," Heath said. "I noticed I was becoming less and less creative in my spare time because of the three hours I was spending each day in stop-and-go traffic. I also realized that I was fueling up twice a week at $60 a pop, or $480 per month."

Heath now takes MARTA to his job in Alpharetta and saves almost $200 a month.

"I think there are more and more people who are getting rid of their SUVs," said Randy Bly, spokesman for American Automobile Association (AAA) Auto Club South. "No one is panicking, either. Car-poolers and some people are being allowed to tele-commute, and I think people are actually starting to take action with these higher gas prices."

Gas prices dropped slightly late last week, but rose to record highs early this week due to spikes in crude oil prices. Crude oil soared on June 6, after the U.S. Department of Labor reported that unemployment had climbed from 5.0 percent to 5.5 percent - the highest single-month increase in 22 years.

Bly added that reports from the Middle East suggested that Israel would be prepared to attack Iran if that nation does not give up on its nuclear program, an announcement that triggered further loss in the value of the U.S. Dollar to the Euro.

"While earlier in the week we saw the Dollar strengthen, Friday's crude oil spike trumped everything," he said, "and points again to the pressure the weak dollar is putting on our economy."

Crude oil settled on the NYMEX at $138.54 per barrel on June 6 and had fallen to $131.81 late Tuesday afternoon.

During the first three weeks in May, West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices rose from $113 to $133 per barrel, before falling back to $122 on June 4 and then surging to more than $138 per barrel by June 6.

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that crude oil prices will average $122.15 per barrel this year, a dramatic increase from $72.32 in 2007 and $66.02 in 2006. The rising prices are projected to continue through 2009, when the average is projected to be $126 per barrel.

In May, AAA officials made predictions that roughly one million Georgians would travel during the Memorial Day Weekend, despite rising gas prices. Nearly 7 million people were expected to travel throughout the Southeast for their Memorial Day vacations.

"I think we will probably see the same outlook for the entire summer," Bly said. "Considering how high the gas prices are, that's not too bad."

Bly said he believes motorists will continue to make vacation plans. Many, however, may plan vacations closer to home or rent newer rental cars that get better gas mileage.

Since June 2007, regular unleaded gas has averaged $1.63 per gallon higher than it did seven years ago in Georgia. In the year since last June, prices have averaged $3.02 per gallon for regular unleaded. Between June 1, 2000, and May 31, 2001, the average was only $1.39 per gallon. The following is a break down of annual average gas prices in Georgia since 2000.

Mid-year Annual Average Gas Prices in Georgia

Year

Unleaded

Midgrade

Premium

Diesel

2000-01

$1.39

$1.50

$1.56

$1.45

2001-02

$1.17

$1.26

$1.32

$1.24

2002-03

$1.33

$1.43

$1.49

$1.40

2003-04

$1.48

$1.59

$1.66

$1.47

2004-05

$1.85

$1.99

$2.08

$1.95

2005-06

$2.40

$2.58

$2.70

$2.60

2006-07

$2.47

$2.66

$2.78

$2.70

2007-08

$3.02

$3.25

$3.40

$3.36

*NOTE: Each annual average is taken from June 1 to May 31 of the following year.

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Source: AAA Auto Club South

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On the net:

The Clean Air Campaign:

www.CleanAirCampaign.com

AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report:

www.fuelgaugereport.com