By Lindsay Castleberry
Gas prices across the country are inching up for the third straight week, but motorists are still enjoying the lowest prices in almost a decade.
On average, Virginia residents are paying 28 cents more per gallon at the pump when compared with the same time last month. But many drivers in the area say they are unfazed by the uptick.
Ronnie Rudy, who owns Ronnie Rudy’s Rug Spa — a carpet and upholstery cleaning service located in Lexington—gets his gas from Sheetz, a chain on East Nelson Street, which offers fuel and convenience goods.
Rudy’s business requires gasoline to fuel the company’s vehicles and to operate the equipment inside each car.
“The bottom line of my business depends directly on gas prices,” Rudy said. “It got down to like a dollar twenty-something or thirty, which really helped me out. I’m puzzled about [the increase] myself, because oil is still down for the 40-gallon barrels they produce.”
The average price of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. on March 21 was $1.98, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report. That’s up 27 cents, or 16 percent, from the same time last month, but down 44.1 cents, or about 18 percent, compared to this time last year.
Virginia’s average price is below the national average, at $1.835 per gallon. That’s up from $1.555 a month ago. A year ago the average regular gas price was $2.239.
Lexington, Rockbridge County and Buena Vista gas prices are in line with the rest of the state, with the lowest regular gas selling this week for $1.75 per gallon at Southern States at the intersection of Waddell and Main streets. The most expensive gas is at Exxon on North Lee Highway, where regular gas is going for $1.85 per gallon.
Some local residents are questioning what is behind the increase.
Rising gas prices are typical for this time of year, when refineries undergo scheduled maintenance and begin making their summer blends—which are more expensive but required because they cause less air pollution at higher temperatures.
The high demand that is typical during spring and summer are also expected to keep driving gas prices up until at least May, according to Gasbuddy.com, a company out of Gaithersburg, Md. which operates websites and mobile apps that report fuel prices to the public through crowdsourcing, gas stations and credit card companies.
Rudy said he doesn’t think drivers will react until prices reach higher levels.
“When it starts getting back up to $3 and stuff like that, it’s just going to go crazy,” he said.
Virginia drivers still pay the fourth-lowest gas prices in the country, and they could see the cheapest average summer prices in a decade, according to a AAA Mid-Atlantic report.
While low gas prices are welcome by consumers and small business owners like Rudy, families in other parts of the country who make their money in the oil and gas sectors have taken a massive hit over the past year.
Thousands of rigs are put on hold because the cost of extraction is often higher than revenue, and many have lost their jobs or had to relocate to find new work.
Lower gas prices means lower revenue from state and federal taxes, too. Three Virginia counties—Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania— saw revenue drop more than $4.5 million combined last year due to loss of income from the regional gas tax, according to The Free Lance-Star.
City Manager Noah Simon said Lexington’s economy has not felt the same impact as larger localities nearby—one advantage of small-town America.
“We don’t have a large industry, we are not producing or running an assembly line, our economy is tourism based,” Simon said. “If over the next series of months it goes up to three bucks, people are going to do more ‘stay-cations’ and things like that, and we could probably see impacts to our economy.”
But for now, the city’s sales tax revenue is up nearly two percent for the year, and tourism is booming.
“I wouldn’t expect [the increase] to result in anybody not deciding to travel,” said Patty Williams, director of marketing for Lexington and Rockbridge Area Tourism.
“The prices are not that high at this point and I actually think people kind of expect prices to go up in the summer when people are traveling.”
Betsey Nicely, an administrative assistant for Virginia Military Institute’s Men’s Basketball team, says they are not concerned.
“I believe the price increase is seasonal, just in time for vacations, and expect them to go back down,” she said. “I don’t travel much so the rise and fall in gas prices doesn’t affect me much.”
California has led the nation with the highest prices for two consecutive weeks, with regular gas selling for $2.68 per gallon. Hawaii, Nevada, Washington and Alaska are close behind. The cheapest prices can be found in New Jersey, at $1.73, the only state currently offering fuel below $1.75.
Despite low crude oil prices, the number of U.S. oil rigs rose for the first time in 13 weeks over the past week, signaling strong production in the states, according to a report by AAA. It also noted global oil prices are expected to remain volatile as top producers continue discussing the possibility of temporarily halting production.