As pump prices rise, Pa. drivers face highest gas tax in U.S. |

As pump prices rise, Pa. drivers face highest gas tax in U.S.

Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Jason Landis of Greensburg pumps gas into his truck on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, at a Sunoco along Mt. Pleasant Street in Greensburg.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Gas prices have been rising, as seen on a sign at a Sunoco along Mt. Pleasant Street in Greensburg on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

The numbers ticked up as Gary Wilker pumped gas into his Dodge Ram pickup’s 28-gallon fuel tank at a Greensburg Sunoco station.

Filling up a month ago would have cost about $65. On Wednesday, Wilker estimated he’d spend closer to $75.

Such increases are hitting motorists across Pennsylvania, thanks to surging gas prices nationwide and an 8-cent increase to what already was the most expensive state gas tax in the country.

“It’s getting outrageous,” said Wilker, 59, of Indian Head, Fayette County.

Industry experts at expect Americans will spend $52 billion more at the pump in 2017 than they did in 2016, while AAA said drivers are paying the highest New Year’s gas prices since 2014. Pennsylvanians specifically are shelling out for both the sixth-most expensive gas by state in the country and the steepest price increase this week compared to last.

National cost increases have pushed per-gallon averages 36 cents higher than averages one year ago, according to AAA. The national per-gallon average was about $2.36 Wednesday while Pennsylvania’s was $2.62.

Gas prices here could top $3 per gallon in coming months as winter gas switches over to summer gas, senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan said.

Relatively inexpensive prices from 2014 to 2016 largely resulted from OPEC’s strategic effort to win back market share by flooding global crude oil markets, DeHaan said. OPEC now is cutting back on production.

Motorists also face the pending, federally mandated switch from less expensive winter-blend to summer-blend gas this spring, which could push the national average gas price up by between 35 and 60 cents between mid-February and peak prices in May, DeHaan said.

The $52 billion increase in gasoline spending forecasted by GasBuddy would push the nation’s total spending to $355 billion in 2017 — an increase that comes after motorists saved about $39 billion in 2016 compared to 2015. DeHaan cautioned the 2017 forecast is complicated by a new seemingly oil-friendly administration headed to the White House, volatility in the Middle East and currency fluctuations, among other issues.

In Pennsylvania, the 8-cent gas tax increase that kicked in Jan. 1 pushes the state’s wholesale per-gallon tax to 58 cents per gallon.

The national average is 30.5 cents per gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Gas sold in each state includes 18.4 cents applied per gallon for a federal excise gas tax.

James Swarthout, 33, witnessed the Keystone State’s gas-tax effect first-hand when he moved last week from Florida to Latrobe, where his mother lives.

“When I drove out of there, it cost $2.15, maybe $2.20 (per gallon),” he said. “I watched it go up as I drove up the Eastern seaboard.”

Diesel fuel taxes also increased, a change that impacts Chip Shirey’s Greensburg-based Adventure Trucking LLC.

Shirey said his business generally has six or seven trucks on the road moving heavy equipment and other goods around the country, with each truck burning through nearly 200 gallons of diesel per day.

“As far as my bottom line, it hurts,” Shirey said. “What we used to do for a quarter (decades ago) is now $3.25 per gallon.”

Pennsylvania’s most recent tax jump stems from the 2013 roads and bridges funding bill, known as Act 89. The law generates billions in new revenues for state road and bridge maintenance. It also increased the gas tax in 2015.

Public agencies in the state will feel the effects of higher gas prices less sharply. They don’t pay state or federal fuel tax, but they’re not immune from non-tax related increases.

Greensburg Salem School District transportation costs are locked in a contract with an Ontario-based busing company, but the cost of the district’s next transportation contract could be impacted by fuel price changes, said Chris Suppo, the district’s coordinator of technology and transportation.

Westmoreland County Transit Authority’s fixed-route bus service operates on an 18-month diesel contract with Guttman Energy.

Officials budgeted about $495,000 to purchase 270,000 gallons of diesel this fiscal year. A shared-ride paratransit service called GO Westmoreland uses unleaded gasoline, with a budget to purchase about 185,000 gallons at a total cost of $402,000 during the fiscal year.

Executive Director Alan Blahovec said the agency tries to plan for price fluctuations as best as it can. The agency generally sees a ridership increase when fuel prices go up.

“There’s a point where people will stop driving their cars and will get on public transit,” he said.

Michael Walton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1290 or [email protected].

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