Millions hit road for Memorial Day with gasoline prices at 7-year high

Source: By Marcy Deluna, Houston Chronicle • Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2021

Higher prices at the pumps are not going to stop Tyler Kuzniarek and his family from jumping in his Ford F-250 and heading to Austin this Memorial Day weekend. After more than a year of pandemic living, they are more than ready to get out of the house.

Kuzniarek, however, said he expects to scale back on some of his weekend plans because rising gasoline prices are taking a bigger chunk of his paycheck. He estimates the 330-mile roundtrip drive to Austin will cost him about $180 in gasoline, on top of the $240 a week he’s spending on gas to commute from Cypress to Lake Jackson for work.

“We’ve got two little kids. We are trying to take trips and get them out,” said Kuzniarek, a 29-year-old Cypress resident. “Higher (gasoline) prices make that tougher. We’ve had to re-evaluate what we’re spending money on and do what we can.”

Gasoline prices heading into the Memorial Day weekend are the highest in seven years as families like Kurzniarek’s family hit the road with a vengeance. With increasing vaccinations and falling COVID-19 infections freeing them from months of house arrest, an estimated 37 million Americans — including nearly 3 million Texans — are expected to travel 50 or more miles from May 27 to May 31, up 60 percent from last year’s pandemic lows, according to the auto club AAA.

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But the surge in travel and activity is also driving energy demand higher, and with it, oil and gasoline prices. Gasoline is projected to average just under $3 gallon nationally, the highest Memorial Day prices since 2014, when they reached $3.66 a gallon, according to the fuel-price tracking website GasBuddy.

Gasoline averaged $1.96 a gallon nationally last year.

In Houston, the average cost of gasoline was $2.63 a gallon Monday, $1.05 a gallon higher than a year ago, according to GasBuddy.

Economic rebound

Gasoline prices have risen rapidly this year with the rebound in economic activity. A ransomware attack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline earlier this month and cut off nearly half the gasoline and diesel consumed on the East Coast added a short-term increase to average prices nationally.

Gasoline also becomes pricier as refiners complete seasonal maintenance and switch to more expensive summer fuel blends that help reduce emissions and smog levels, which worsen in the warmer weather.

Higher gasoline prices have always been a two-edged sword for Houston and Texas. Higher gasoline prices are a signal of a healthier oil industry, which still drives the local economy and job growth.

On the other hand, when consumers pay more at the pump, that means they have less money to spend on hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and other goods and services, creating a drag on the economy. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.

People have been cooped up for a long time, kids are out of school and there might be a strong sense of ‘We’re going to get out and we’re going to go do something,’” said Jesse Thompson, an economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve. “If they do go driving, well, that’s going to eat up some of their budget and they’re going to have less to spend on something else.”

Daniel Armbruster, spokesman for AAA Texas, said travelers typically cut back when gasoline prices rise, seeking out free activities and eating out less while on vacation. But, he added, people “still take their planned trips.”

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That doesn’t include Nena Gonzales, a Houston resident who said higher gasoline prices played into her decision to stay in town for Memorial Day weekend. Gonzales paid $65.50 to put gasoline in her SUV — and that didn’t even fill the tank.

“It is expensive,” said Gonzales, a 46-year-old property supervisor. “I am a single mom. It makes things harder.”

Traffic’s back

For residents who do travel, they should be prepared for more traffic and expect to spend more time in their cars. Traffic for I-69 East and I-610 to I-10, expected to be the busiest corridors, is projected to peak on Friday from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m., AAA said.

“Travelers should anticipate delays to start on Wednesday and continue through Memorial Day,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at data and analytics firm INRIX. “Our advice to drivers is to avoid the evening commute times and plan alternate routes.”

Those heading to the airports this holiday should expect larger crowds, too. Nearly 2.5 million Americans will board planes over the weekend, nearly six times more than last year, according to AAA.

Jet fuel consumption in April hit more than 1.2 million barrels per day, nearly 200,000 barrels per day higher than in March, according to the Energy Department.

While domestic travel in the U.S. is on the rise, travel abroad isn’t expected to rebound as quickly because of varying vaccination rates and international travel restrictions.