Gas prices increase as Memorial Day weekend approaches

ST. LOUIS | The first big travel weekend of the year is here, and gasoline prices are going up.

Memorial Day weekend traditionally launches the travel season as people hit the road for a getaway. The expected increase in demand is part of what is fueling higher prices at the pumps.

AAA Auto Club's Fuel Gauge Report, a daily survey of 100,000 self-serve stations, showed that the average national price of regular unleaded was $2.36 per gallon on Thursday, up 3 cents from Wednesday, 8 cents from last week and 30 cents from last month.

In Missouri, the average price was significantly cheaper at $2.19 per gallon, but that was still up 4 cents from Wednesday, 7 cents from last week and 29 cents from a month ago. Missouri has the nation's second-lowest price. Arizona, at $2.17, is the lowest.

But the Missouri figures were somewhat misleading — the average was posted in the early hours of Thursday. By midday, many stations had increased prices by another dime or so.

Mike Right of AAA Auto Club of Missouri said demand is one of several factors pushing prices up.

“We've seen upward movement in both crude oil and wholesale gasoline prices,” Right said. “We're also seeing supplies starting to tighten. It's not anything to be concerned about, but when you have tightened supplies, you see firming of prices.”

The good news is AAA and the U.S. Department of Energy expect prices to level out far below last summer's record levels, when regular unleaded reached a record of $4.11 per gallon nationally and just under $4 per gallon in Missouri.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration agreed that both gasoline and diesel fuel prices will likely stay well below summer 2008 levels. The Energy Department expects the summertime average to be about where it's at now. Right wouldn't go that far, but he doesn't expect prices to approach $3 per gallon.

Diesel fuel prices have been rising more slowly nationally and in Missouri. Nationally, diesel fuel on Thursday was selling at $2.30 per gallon, up about 1 cent from last week and 3 cents from last month. A year ago, the national average price for a gallon of diesel fuel was $4.59.

In Missouri, the price of diesel fuel was at $2.10 per gallon on Thursday. It was $2.08 last week and last month, but $4.39 a year ago.

Memorial Day weekend demand is expected to be higher than last year, when the economic meltdown and extraordinarily high gasoline prices were keeping many families from traveling. AAA projects 32.4 million Americans will travel this weekend, 83 percent of them by motor vehicle.

Right said that while travel on the roads is expected to climb 2.7 percent over last year, AAA projects air travel will be down about 1 percent.

“I think people are feeling a little bit better about things,” Right said. “The other factor is there's some pent-up demand. A lot of folks postponed or eliminated travel in 2008. And there are a lot of travel bargains.”