Soaring gas costs leave consumers anxious about economy

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Photo - Pumping gas
Pumping gas
Local,DC,Maryland,Virginia,Taylor Holland,Metro and Traffic

The price of a gallon of gasoline in the Washington area rose every day for more than a month, taking a toll on families and businesses, with no relief in sight.

Gas now averages $3.84 a gallon across the region, up 43 cents since prices first started rising a month ago, AAA data show. In the District, gas on Friday topped $4 a gallon for the fifth time.

The government regularly issues reports on unemployment, housing starts and manufacturers' output to track the economy's progress. But for the average person, the top economic indicator is the price he or she pays at the pump, experts said. And at a time of record-high gas prices -- combined with long-term joblessness, greater personal debt and paychecks reduced by higher taxes -- the consumers whose spending drives the economy are unwilling, or unable, to part with their money.

Pain at the pump
Location Price today Price yesterday Month ago Year ago
Metro area $3.84 $3.84 $3.41 $3.66
District $4.01 $4.00 $3.58 $3.79
Suburban Maryland $3.84 $3.85 $3.41 $3.66
Virginia $3.70 $3.69 $3.25 $3.56
West Virginia $3.87 $3.86 $3.47 $3.71
National $3.78 $3.78 $3.32 $3.61
Source: AAA. Data as of Feb. 22, 2013

"Consumers typically use gas prices as an indicator of what's going on with the economy," said Mark Waldman, of American University. "When gas prices are up, you know you're going to be squeezed."

That squeeze is already hurting Sefika Kurt, owner of A Little Shop of Flowers in Adams Morgan, who said she was forced to triple delivery charges from $5 to $15 to cover fuel costs. Despite that, her drivers are still losing $100 or more each week, a major hit to their wallets.

"It's hard to find a driver that's willing to use their own car," Kurt said. "When you think about labor and the cost of gas, nobody wants to do this job."

D.C. cabbie Larry Frankel is forced to take breaks during his workday to conserve gas.

"For most drivers now, when we get to a slow period in the day, we go home rather than take the chance," Frankel said. "This means that during the hours that aren't as busy for travel, there just won't be as many cabs."

The price spike is due largely to the rising cost of crude oil and the earlier-than-usual shutdown of many U.S. refineries. The refineries shut down to do maintenance and switch over to a summer blend of gas, but the closings create temporary shortages that drive up prices.

And it won't get better soon, oil analyst Tom Kloza said. Prices are expected to continue rising until early May, reaching as much as $4.10 a gallon by late spring, he said.

"Prices will be even higher a month from now," said Kloza, of the Oil Price Information Service. "We'll peak sometime between Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick's Day."

Higher gas costs will force consumers to cut back on their spending, traveling less to movie theaters, restaurants and shopping malls.

"Anybody who's not depressed, doesn't know what's going on," Waldman said.

At the pump, many drivers express frustration or anger over the costs, but they also appear resigned to paying more.

"Am I worried about prices continuing to go up? No, I can't be," said Gabe Rubalcava as he filled up his car in Fairfax. "I've got to go work. I can't not fill up. They've got us by the throats."

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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