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Pumping it up ... but how high? With the average already exceeding $4 per gallon in the Buffalo area, the prospect of $5 fuel could prompt changes in people's driving habits

Pearl Wachadlo knew the pump price of $4.93 for a gallon of regular gasoline had to be wrong at the Mobil station she faithfully visits in Cheektowaga.

To her relief -- if that's the way to put it -- the correct price was $4.03.

But was the mistake a premonition?

Since we already have $4 per gallon gas in Western New York, well before the summer driving season, can $4.50 or -- gasp -- $5 be far behind?

"They're insane," said JoMary Castanzo, 18, of Buffalo, who was filling up her Ford Focus at the Sunoco station at Union Road and Maryvale Drive in Cheektowaga, where regular was $4.03 Monday. "I think before the end of the year, we'll hit $5."

A number of factors are driving up the price of gas, analysts say, led by rising global demand, limited supply and turmoil in the Middle East region where we get much of our oil.

Drivers in this area feel frustrated that they can do little about the soaring prices and resigned that they need a motor vehicle to get around.

"There's no choice. They've got us dead," said Ralph Gizzi, 58, a railroad yard master from West Seneca who was filling up Monday at the Mobil station at Harlem Road and Clinton Street in Cheektowaga.

But by crossing a psychological threshold -- such as $4 per gallon -- rising gasoline prices can spur changes in behavior as motorists look to cut their costs.

Carpooling or taking Metro Bus or Rail, combining stops into one trip, riding a bicycle or buying a fuel-efficient vehicle all look more attractive when gas prices go up.

"When there's a breakthrough, and it gets to the next dollar level, it gets people's attention," said Hal Morse, executive director of the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council. The council created the GoodGoing Western New York website, which encourages ride-sharing and other transportation alternatives.

For the first time since 2008, this region broke the $4 barrier for an average gallon of regular gasoline Sunday, according to the AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report and GasBuddy.com

Regular gas averaged $4.01 a gallon Monday in the Buffalo area.

That's well below the regions's record of $4.27 on July 17, 2008. But regular cost $3.72 here a month ago and only $3.01 a year ago, the AAA reported.

And ignoring changes in gas prices is difficult when we see them on the road all the time.

"It's something that's pounded into our vision every day," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com.

Prices in the Buffalo area trail those in New York City and Long Island. In some parts of the country, prices have been at $4 per gallon for weeks, although the Buffalo area average remains 15 cents above the national average.

"I think it's ridiculous; it is. But what are you going to do? You need the gas," said Wachadlo, a West Seneca resident who is 85 and retired from a local bakery.

What's causing the spike in gasoline prices?

For one, gas inventories had been low, said DeHaan. The improving American economy also is causing prices to rise.

Also, turmoil in the Middle East, particularly Libya, which provides a substantial amount of Europe's oil, does not help.

Further, demand is rising in China, India and other parts of the developing world, said Lawrence Southwick, a retired economist from the University at Buffalo.

Some critics point to the harm done by speculators -- traders who bet that the price of oil will rise in the future -- though Southwick dismisses their impact.

Others blame President Obama, or more specifically his decisions to bar drilling for oil in an Alaskan wildlife refuge and in certain coastal waters near the U.S. shoreline.

Michael Holleran of Buffalo, who works for Time Warner Cable, said he wished a worldwide gas boycott could be organized.

"If we could go a day -- one day -- it would make a difference," said Holleran, 51, who was filling up his 1997 Lincoln Town Car at the Mobil station at Harlem and Clinton.

Gas prices hit the $4 per gallon mark here far earlier in the year than they did in 2008, DeHaan pointed out. On April 25, 2008, the average price for a gallon of regular was only $3.71 in Buffalo, according to GasBuddy.com.

Does this mean gas prices could go even higher this summer, reaching $4.25, $4.50 or even $5 per gallon before the year is out?

"What I'm concerned about is the next plateau, $5," said Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops. "There's no question we're being taken advantage of. It's coming from the top."

While some analysts predict $5 per gallon by next year, Southwick said he couldn't say for sure when we are likely to reach that undesirable milestone.

In fact, GasBuddy's DeHaan said he believes gasoline inventories will rise as more refineries come on line in the next few months, and this will bring prices down.

"I certainly don't see a $5 gallon average," DeHaan said. "I believe prices will peak in May."

If prices stay at $4 per gallon, or continue to rise, some motorists said they will try to combine trips or make other adjustments to their non-essential driving.

Ninety percent of vacation travel is by car, said Wally Smith, a vice president with the AAA of Western and Central New York.

"What we saw in '08 was people did not say, 'We're not going to go anywhere.' They just adjusted their plans," Smith said, such as by going somewhere closer or eating at cheaper restaurants.

Just as during past spikes in gasoline prices, the number of riders using public transportation also is climbing steadily as beleaguered commuters seek refuge on Metro Bus and Rail.

Officials of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority reported Monday that average weekday ridership is up 6.7 percent compared with the same period last year.

Kimberley A. Minkel, NFTA executive director, said NFTA calculations show the average rider of Metro Bus and Rail would save about $2,500 per year by using a $4 day pass instead of driving to and from work.

The spike in gas prices in 2008 fundamentally altered the automobile industry for manufacturers, dealers and customers alike, said Chuck Basil, owner of Basil Ford in Cheektowaga. Fuel-efficient vehicles have remained popular ever since.

"That's the currency in the industry: miles per gallon," Basil said.

Some drivers, however, admit to feeling fatalistic about the rising prices because they need a car to get to work, to ferry their kids to dental appointments and to do everything else in their lives.

"It is frustrating. Nothing you can do about it," said Samantha Carlo, 29, a restaurant manager from Cheektowaga who put $60 into her Chevrolet Equinox on Monday.

News Staff Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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