Anyone in the Tri-Cities trying to fill up their gas tanks knows that fuel prices around town have gone up and remain higher than the national average.
But motorists may need to brace themselves for even emptier wallets as they get set for the Memorial Day weekend. Analysts on Wednesday warned that gas prices in the state could spike by as much as 35 cents before the weekend is over.
"I expect stations to increase prices as much as 10 to 35 cents per gallon by the conclusion of the weekend with some stations starting to raise prices immediately," said Patrick DeHaan, GasBuddy.com senior petroleum analyst.
If the worst-case scenario comes true, the average price of a gallon of unleaded gas in the Tri-Cities could reach $4.47 -- besting by 17 cents the highest recorded average of $4.30 that was set July 17, 2008.
That also means any Tri-Citians who are among the 34.8 million Americans that AAA predicted will travel more than 50 miles or more during the three-day weekend may need to opt for grilling sirloin steaks instead of Porterhouses.
A tight fuel supply is boosting prices significantly throughout the West Coast, but DeHann said Oregon and Washington are likely to see the worst prices in the nation. Wholesale gasoline prices, the price stations pay before taxes and freight charges, are at the highest level ever recorded for the Northwest, he said.
Washington gas prices are consistently higher than the national average, but it has typically followed the national trend. That changed last month when prices across the nation started dropping, while those in Washington kept going up, according to AAA.
The rising prices in the West Coast region can be blamed on refinery shutdowns and maintenance. Two refineries in California are shut down for scheduled annual maintenance and the BP's Cherry Point refinery in Blaine has been out of commission since a February fire, said Cassie Devaney, with AAA in Spokane.
"We had expected they would be online by now, but they're still offline because they had trouble restarting," Devaney told the Herald. "It's just the timing that these refineries are all offline at the same time. The good news is those are short-term issues."
Once the refineries get back online, Washington drivers should start seeing relief at the pump, she said.
On Wednesday, the average price of regular gas in the Tri-Cities was $4.12 cents a gallon, down a penny from a week ago, but up 4 cents from a month ago, according to the AAA fuel gauge report.
It's also 44 cents higher than the national average price of regular unleaded gas, which was $3.68 a gallon on Wednesday.
If there's any good news to the numbers, it's that drivers in the Tri-Cities are paying less than other parts of the state. The statewide average for a gallon of regular gas is $4.24 a gallon -- 12 cents more than in the Tri-Cities.
A look at the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded fuel in metro areas around the state shows Bellingham with the highest at $4.38, Olympia at $4.29, Seattle at $4.28, Tacoma at $4.26 and Yakima at $4.18.
The only area in the state with lower gas prices than the Tri-Cities is Spokane, where a gallon of gas is $3.97.
It's not clear if Wednesday's warning about the pending gas price spike will change people's travel plans, but if results from a recent AAA survey are any indication, a majority of travelers still will hit the road this weekend.
Of the 1,500 households in the U.S. surveyed, 53 percent said they would not let the increase in gas prices affect their plans, Devaney said. As for the other travelers, 34 percent said they'd spend less on entertainment and going out while on their trip, 9 percent indicated they'd take a shorter trip and 4 percent said they'd change their mode of transportation, she said.
Washington residents also are likely to head to the Washington and Oregon coasts, the Olympic Peninsula or Montana on their holiday road trip, according to an online survey of AAA Washington members.