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Tampa Bay area drivers brace themselves as gas prices inch toward $4

Monday morning, gas was $3.459 at the Costco store in Clearwater. Nationwide, prices are up 33 cents in 12 days.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Monday morning, gas was $3.459 at the Costco store in Clearwater. Nationwide, prices are up 33 cents in 12 days.

When gas gets this expensive, Judy Guerrero doesn't necessarily drive less. But she does think about the little things.

For her 2-year-old son, no more McDonald's. For her husband, no more premium gasoline for his prized BMW. The family cooks more meals at home.

"No more Starbucks kind of stuff," Guerrero, 29, said as she filled up a Honda Odyssey for $3.47 a gallon at a Shell station on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.

For now, it's not so bad. But like many other drivers, Guerrero and her husband are bracing for the $4 mark. That's when the bigger changes will come, like rethinking that trip to Disney World.

That $4-a-gallon milestone may not be far off for Floridians. National gas prices have risen 33 cents in 12 days, the biggest rise since a post-Hurricane Katrina hike in 2005. Some parts of the country already have pushed past $4, while Tampa Bay area prices are about $3.50 a gallon.

Experts already were predicting gas would hit $4 this summer, and that was before fighting broke out in Libya. The ongoing Middle East crisis has caused speculators to brace for a decrease in crude oil supply, even though the United States only gets about 3 percent of Libya's oil exports.

Now it's looking like Tampa Bay area drivers could see $4 in a matter of weeks, or even days, said AAA South spokeswoman Jessica Brady.

"Even though there's not been any reported significant disruption in oil supply, it's still that concern and fear of 'what if,' " Brady said. "How long that will go on and how the prices will go is really unknown."

The last time Floridians felt the pain of $4 at the pump was late July 2008. From there, it began dropping until it dipped below $2 in March 2009.

Although gas is already more than $4 in California and other areas of the country, Florida has seen one of the most rapid rises in recent weeks.

According to FloridaGasPrices.com, gas is up about 43 cents in the last month and 75 cents in the last year.

The rise prompted President Barack Obama to consider helping lower gas prices by releasing supplies from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The reserve, set up in the 1970s after the Arab oil embargo, contains 727 million barrels of oil kept in salt mines at four heavily guarded locations in Texas and Louisiana.

That oil typically is tapped only in rare cases. It was not tapped the last time gas prices reached $4, but Obama expressed concern Sunday about the fragile recovering economy taking another hit.

Brady said it's too early to tell what kind of effect the rising prices will have on travel, though a good indicator will be Memorial Day travel predictions in early to mid May.

Experts worry that high pump prices will be a drag on the overall economic recovery because people spend less in other areas.

When gas hits the $4 mark, Andrea Miranda said, she'll stop going out and stop buying drinks.

A psychology student at South University in Tampa, Miranda is concerned about the summer, when she knows she'll have to use more gas by turning up the air conditioning in her Kia Spectra LX.

"Let's just say I never fill up anymore," Miranda, 24, said. "It's half a tank."

That seems to hurt a little less, she said. But it still hurts.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

$107

Price a barrel of Texas crude almost hit during afternoon trading Monday. It ended at nearly $105.

$3.51

Average price/gallon nationwide.

39 cents

Jump in gas prices, on average, since Libyan crisis began last month.

727M

Barrels of oil in U.S. strategic reserve; Obama is considering tapping the supply to ease prices.

Tampa Bay area drivers brace themselves as gas prices inch toward $4 03/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 7, 2011 11:37pm]
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