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Gas guzzles higher price at pump Two years after record level, area drivers again face growing outlays

Gasoline is leaping toward record prices, as crude oil close to $100 a barrel puts the bite on energy users.

"It is ridiculous," Sabrina Renfro said Thursday as she fueled her Pontiac G6 at a Buffalo Sunoco station, where regular unleaded cost $3.21 a gallon.

"We have no control over it -- it makes me want to just park my car."

According to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report, a gallon of regular in the region reached an average $3.20 Thursday -- up 27 cents in a month and 75 cents more than a year ago.

The record average for regular was $3.44 in the fall of 2005, according to the auto association's survey. That spike was short-lived, the result of hurricanes that battered suppliers in the gulf.

Analysts blame the current oil price increase on the sinking value of the U.S. dollar, plus fast-growing demand from China's booming economy.

"That thin line between supply and demand is getting thinner," said Rayola Dougher, senior economist at the American Petroleum Institute.

Crude oil was $95.80 a barrel Thursday on the New York Mercantile Exchange, having reached a record $98.62 during trading Wednesday.

Regular gasoline nationally averaged $3.06 a gallon, AAA said, 86 cents higher than a year ago.

Some local drivers relieved their frustration by chewing out the nearest target.

"Who ends up taking the brunt of it are clerks in our convenience stores," said Scott Ernst, director of fuel operations for Noco Energy Corp. in the Town of Tonawanda. "We really have no control over it."

Most of the region's gasoline comes via pipelines -- to Buffalo or Rochester -- from refineries in the New York City area and Philadelphia, which set wholesale prices, he said. Noco has 33 area gas stations.

County sales taxes are adding to prices as gasoline costs rise. State and federal taxes are capped on a cents-per-gallon basis, but most counties -- including Erie and Niagara -- continue to charge a percentage of the retail price.

Counties had the option of capping their sales tax on fuel last year, when the state limited its rate. Only 14 counties, including Chautauqua, did so.

At $3 a gallon, gas generates 12.9 cents per gallon in sales tax for Erie County, according to a report by the county comptroller's office.

Some area drivers are taking steps to save on their own fuel costs by consolidating trips. Betty Lloyd of Buffalo said filling her Chevrolet Uplander costs about $50. When it's time to run errands, "I try to do everything in one day," she said.

For other drivers, prices haven't gone up enough for them to cut back.

"You've got to go where you've got to go," Terry Velardita said Thursday while filling up his GMC Jimmy. He said he needs the four-wheeler to get to his land in the Town of Cuba.

How to cope with the higher cost of a fill-up? "Just spend your movie money," he said with a smile.

Mass transit use has risen somewhat, possibly because more commuters are leaving their cars at home, according to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

The number of Metro Bus and Rail boardings rose to 2.14 million in September, up 1.8 percent from a year ago.

Maurice D. Stevens Sr., a Metro Bus driver, said he thinks gas prices are prompting more people to ride. "The traffic seems to be higher on certain days," he said while filling up his Chevy Trailblazer. Even bus drivers have to get to work -- his weekly fill-up costs $50 to $60, he said.

Will gas come back down?

Since August, crude oil has risen more than twice as much as gasoline. That could mean gas prices at the pump have a way to go to catch up, Dougher of the petroleum industry group said.

But other analysts have attributed oil's recent run-up -- crude prices have shot up 60 percent since the start of the year -- to speculation and say prices will fall when basic market forces reassert themselves.

In "real" or inflation-adjusted terms, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gasoline remains below its record monthly level, set in March 1981. The $1.44 average pump price at that time would equal $3.36 in today's dollars.

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