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Will local gas prices top $3 per gallon?

Holiday travelers in the Southeast, and along the East Coast, found themselves navigating snow-flanked highways, and paying several pennies more to do it.

Accompanying last weekend's arctic blast, was a spike in retail gasoline prices, which launched the nation's average price for regular unleaded to $3.04 per gallon on Monday, according to AAA Auto Club South Spokeswoman Jessica Brady.

"As expected, the price of oil rose last week and gas prices will rise again this week," Brady said. "This is the first time regular gasoline has reached $3 a gallon since October of 2008. I wouldn't be surprised if Georgia hit the $3-mark later this week."

AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report revealed Monday that average prices in Georgia had risen about a dime per gallon over the past week, to $2.96 per gallon for regular unleaded. The report noted that metro Atlantans were paying an average $2.97 per gallon, compared to the lesser $2.43 per gallon this time a year ago.

Retail gas prices continue to surpass projected winter averages set the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The administration projected, this month, that retail prices for regular unleaded gas would average $2.88 per gallon for the winter.

"Growing foreign economies, increased need for heating oil, coupled with recent reports showing consumer sentiment in the U.S. is on the rise, have investor optimism at a two-year high, thus increasing the price of oil," Brady said. "While gas prices will increase this week, consumers may see a slight decline in price after the first of the year, since demand for oil typically decreases once the holiday season passes."

Brady warned, however, that this year has been atypical for crude oil prices. She said consumers saw the price of retail gas and crude increase in mid-September, when prices typically begin to decline. Prices have generally been increasing ever since.

Investor confidence, holiday demand, and frigid weather will help perpetuate the rise in crude oil prices this week, said the AAA official.

"The price of crude oil increased again last week as investor optimism rose after reports showed an increase in demand for both foreign and domestic heating oil," Brady said. "In addition, foreign economies in India and China continue to grow, increasing the demand for oil.

"We may see prices stay about the same through mid-January," she continued. "During the first quarter [of 2011], we may see prices dip. That's assuming that demand drops off. In January, there is typically a drop in demand."