By Rick Sobey
and Juanita Doss
As drivers fill up their tanks this Memorial Day weekend, they'll be digging deeper in their wallets than last year.
Prices on Monday were almost 16 cents per gallon more expensive than the same date last year. The average of $3.65 in Massachusetts is also about 5 cents per gallon higher than a month ago.
However, brighter days are ahead for commuters, according to the AAA of Southern New England. Mary Maguire, the AAA's Massachusetts spokeswoman, said Monday that Massachusetts' gas prices are heading toward a downward trend, declining from what appears to be the springtime peak three weeks ago of $3.70.
"It's good news for summer travelers, finally feeling some relief at the pump," Maguire told the Sentinel & Enterprise. "It's higher than last year, but we're narrowing the gap and declining since the beginning of the month. AAA National is projecting $3.63 for Memorial Day weekend, and we're real close to that now.
"However, the situation in Ukraine and Russia is volatile, and Russia is one of the top oil producers," she added. "Whenever there's turmoil, there's always concern about the possible disruption of the supply of gas, so we'll have to continue monitoring the situation over there carefully."
Massachusetts now joins the national average of $3.65. Though Massachusetts drivers are paying 16 more now than May 19 last year, the national average comes in 2 cents per gallon cheaper than this time one year ago ($3.67).
"Massachusetts, like the East Coast and West Coast, has been going in the opposite direction of the national trend this year," said Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com, which tracks gasoline prices at more than 140,000 gas stations in the United States and Canada.
"We're seeing an absolute great deal of diversity in fuel pricing, where there's significant decreases in the heartland but increases along the East Coast and western states," Laskoski added.
Between the higher crude-oil prices on the East Coast and diminished imports of gasoline, Massachusetts drivers have been paying more at the pump, he said.
As a result of the U.S. oil boom, the area is producing more oil and exporting a lot, but not importing a lot.
"We've turned into a net exporter, sending more out of the country than bringing in," Laskoski said.
Massachusetts sometimes has higher gas prices because of transportation costs from the Gulf Coast, as well as being reliant on the more expensive North Sea crude oil, Maguire said. She said gas can be cheaper for southern states that are closer to the refineries.
However, she emphasized that Massachusetts drivers paying 16 cents more than they did a year ago is not unusual because the prices peaked earlier last year, in late February and early March. This year, the peak hit in late April, according to Maguire.
"And they've been coming down since," she said. "There's a record stockpile of product right now, and inventory at a record high tends to moderate prices. The record will likely bring them down further as we move into the summer.
"It looks like no surprises, but again, we need to monitor the Ukraine/Russia situation, and there's always potential for an extreme weather event," she added.
AAA is estimating that prices will settle between $3.55 and $3.75, and they're currently right in the middle, Maguire said.
Laskoski predicted the same trend, saying prices will most likely be cheaper by the Fourth of July. The supply side looks healthy, he said, adding that if the weather stays cooperative and there are no geopolitical crises, then prices will start to ebb as the summer approaches.
Locals pumping gas at Pace Gas Station on Kimball Street in Fitchburg on Tuesday afternoon said high gas prices are impacting their budgets.
Justyn Bergeron, 36, of Ashburnham, said he spends $1,300 a month on gas.
"I drive people to their medical appointments, and my job doesn't pay for it," said Bergeron. "I have to cut back on gas. I don't buy as much things as I did before. It's burning a hole in my pocket. It's terrible. It's killing us drivers."
Jeffrey Palmieri, 54, of Gardner, said he spends between $80 to $100 per week on gas. He believes prices will continue to rise this summer. He thinks increased drilling for oil could help bring down prices.
"Gas prices will go up because the value of a dollar is going down, and that controls the market," he said.
Jordan Flores, 19, of Fitchburg, also said he spends between $80 and $100 per week on gas. He said he makes an effort to always find the cheapest station to buy his gas.
Angelica Melendez, 34, of Fitchburg, isn't used to Massachusetts gas prices.
"I came from the South, and gas is less expensive there," she said. "It's only between $3.15 and $3.20."
Beverly Cruz, 27, of Fitchburg, said she spends between $70 and $100 a week on gas just driving to work and running errands. She said drivers unfortunately have few alternatives to filling up their vehicles.
"You need gas to go places, and if you don't have gas money, you can't go to work to make money to pay for gas," she said.
Martin Curran, 56, of Fitchburg, said the U.S. needs to open up its oil reserves to bring down the price, but he does not believe President Barack Obama will choose that route.
"Absolutely, gas prices can go down more," he said.
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter and Tout @rsobeyLSun.