Heading north on Interstate 5 out of Pierce County on a recent Sunday afternoon, motorists could read the electronic signboard listing approximate driving times to various destinations to the north. Oddly enough, one of the three destinations displayed, Seattle, was followed by the notation “N/A.”
Since those display boards provide no room for footnotes, we’ll have to presume that “N/A” stood for “not available.” Less clear, however, is whether “not available” meant the travel-time estimate was not available or that the city of Seattle itself was not available as a place you could drive to.
On a weekday-morning commute that might be literally true, given the congestion getting to and through the city. Increasingly it might also be economically true, given the cost of parking and the planned proliferation of tolls.
And, perhaps, the rising cost of gasoline for driving, or idling, long distances like a commute to Seattle or the Eastside.
Gasoline prices are nudging their way up, a fact not lost on motorists who fill the tank at least once a week and see the price signs multiple times a day.
AAA’s gas price survey reported an average price per gallon at $3.346 per gallon in Tacoma this week, up from $3.228 a month ago and $2.909 a year ago. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett was slightly higher at $3.387; Olympia was at $3.350.
The statewide average for Washington, at $3.303 a gallon, runs well ahead of the national average of $2.814. A good portion of that difference can be attributed to Washington’s 49.4 cent per gallon tax on gasoline (the feds collect another 18.4 cents), the third highest in the country behind Pennsylvania and California, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
While no one (we’re presuming) enjoys paying more for gasoline, things could be a whole lot worse — and have been. AAA helpfully reports the highest prices recorded in its surveys; for Tacoma, that would be $4.367 a gallon. That was in June 2008. In other words, we’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of peak prices. Imagine where prices would be if even the nominal inflation rates of the last decade had been at work.
But they weren’t, for which we can again offer thanks and credit to the North American energy revolution sparked by technologies like hydraulic fracturing. That revolution has paid off economically in multiple ways across the country. In Washington, the plunge in crude oil prices has meant approval of gasoline-tax increases, with relatively little controversy, to fund highway construction projects, while still leaving local gas prices a buck a gallon lower than 10 years ago.
So why fret over an increase of less than 44 cents a gallon in the space of a year?
There are three good ones.
First, a lot of money is at stake for consumers dependent on cars to get kids to school, themselves to work and for shopping and outings. It’s been a nice budget break to pay less for gasoline, but less isn’t the same as free. And soon it could be more.
Second, a lot of money is at stake for businesses, especially in the delivery economy we appear to be building. Business has enjoyed an energy dividend the last decade, which has taken some of the sting out of the recession and slow recovery. But operating costs always matter, and if energy costs are on the rise again, squeezing margins, that’s a problem.
Third, what matters is not just the amount of the increase but the momentum and the (pardon the phrase) drivers behind it. Gas prices can be pushed downward by a recession (cutting demand), a surge in supply and expectations of no disruptions from disaster or geopolitical events. They can be pushed upward by economic growth — and we seem to be getting some these days — by a crimp in supply (which in this country could come from political forces attacking any production or use of fossil fuels) or by turmoil somewhere on the globe (the Mideast is highly usually productive in that regard).
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