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Gas prices highest in two years

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

As fuel prices push ever closer to record highs, some officials believe residents will turn to public transportation, to save on the costs of commuting.

The average daily ridership on metro Atlanta's public commuter transportation service, Xpress, has increased since this time a year ago, according to William Mecke, the chief public relations officer for the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA).

Mecke said Xpress ridership on routes serving Henry and Clayton counties has increased about 10.6 percent overall, when comparing February 2010 to February 2011. The six Xpress routes between McDonough and Riverdale, had a combined 235 more riders last month, than in February 2010.

"We attribute the increase to the economy, fuel prices and, especially in the case of the Riverdale route, the closing of C-TRAN," Mecke said. "We don't have any March numbers, yet, but expect the rise in fuel prices over the last few weeks is going to impact ridership as well."

Even so, metro Atlanta fuel costs are among the lowest for metropolitan areas around the state, maintaining an average price of $3.41 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline on Monday, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. The last time residents saw prices above $3.41, was on Oct. 12, 2008, when prices averaged $3.44.

The report indicated that prices held at $3.43 per gallon in Georgia -- one of several states in the Southeast, and Midwest, with relatively "cheap" prices, compared to West Coast states, such as California, for example, whose average price is $3.89 per gallon for regular unleaded.

Consumers, nationally, are paying at least 75 cents more per gallon for regular unleaded gas than they did a year ago, according to AAA. The national average Monday was $3.50 per gallon, compared to $2.74 in 2010.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests the national averages for regular unleaded gas have remained above the $3-mark so far this year, and may continue to average above $3 each quarter through 2012.

The EIA's Short Term Energy Outlook data revealed that prices now are more than double what they were a decade ago. In 2001, the annual average per-gallon price of regular unleaded gas was $1.42.

AAA Auto Club South Spokeswoman Jessica Brady said the month of February, leading up to the spike in crude oil prices, saw a national average price for retail gas at its highest level in the past decade. The month averaged around $3.14 per gallon of regular unleaded gas nationwide.

Brady said the price of crude oil closed March 4, at $104.42 a barrel, on the New York Mercantile Exchange -- the first time since September 2008 that crude oil has been above $100 a barrel.

"Protests in Libya continue to cause concern the unrest will spread to larger oil-producing countries, and disrupt oil supply," said Brady. "Although the unrest in Libya has not yet spread to larger oil-producing countries, and has not further disrupted oil supply, the concern of a supply shortage remains."

The AAA Spokeswoman indicated that U.S. employment rates also are a factor. She cited the U.S. Department of Labor's reports on the nation's unemployment rate, which fell slightly below 9 percent in February. The reports indicate that the unemployment rate is down from 9.8 percent in November, at 8.9 percent in February, the lowest level since April 2009.

The declining unemployment rate, Brady said, has helped to renew confidence in investors, who, at the same time, are concerned with the possibility of crude oil shortages in the crisis-stricken Middle East. The result continues to be increased gas prices at the pump.

"Retail gas prices will continue to increase again this week, and many motorists will see prices at, or above, $3.50 a gallon, Brady said. "Now is the time for consumers to start applying those fuel-efficient measures in an effort to get every mile out of each gallon of gas."