Average gas prices topped $4 a gallon in Washington, D.C., for only the fifth time ever on Thursday, the 35th straight day of increases that have seen prices rise by a total 42 cents.
Although the cost of a gallon of gas in the D.C. suburbs is about 16 cents cheaper, the prices are above the national average of $3.78.
Numbers from the Oil Price Information Service showed that, as of Thursday morning, only three states had touched the $4 regular gasoline mark -- New York at $4.01, California at $4.20 and Hawaii at $4.32 -- while only three other states had gas prices below $3.50. The rest hovered close to the $4 mark.
John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the trend was particularly disturbing because of the time of year.
"Typically, gasoline prices are at their lowest price point of the year during the dead of winter," he said. "But this year pump prices are rising sooner and higher than ever before. That's what so frightening about this."
Officials blamed several factors, from eight East Coast refineries being shut down for maintenance and a few shuttered for good, to prospects for growing demand in China and the United States as the global economy slowly rebounds from ongoing tumult in the Middle East.
The high prices are not just having an effect at gas stations.
On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers pounced on the uptick to promote the need for the Keystone XL pipeline.
The massive conduit would bring Canadian oil to Gulf Coast refineries.
It's still under review by the Obama administration, but the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Monday introduced a "Keystone Clock," a live timekeeper that monitors, down to the second, how much time has passed since the project was first submitted for approval on Sept. 19, 2008 -- when gasoline averaged $3.78 a gallon.
The committee's webpage calls the pipeline a symbol "of the president's failed energy policies."
While debate about the project rages on Capitol Hill over environmentalism and the economy, vehicle owners in many states are simply worried about how long their wallets would stay full.
In Southern California, a record one-month jump had motorists shelling out $4.20 for a gallon of regular gas.
The Automobile Club of Southern California said prices have risen by 57 cents in the past month and have gone up by more than 11 cents since last week.
Club spokesman Jeffrey Spring said a jump like that hadn't been seen since 2008, a year in which gas prices skyrocketed across the country.
AAA numbers show that two years ago, prices hit a record high at $4.21 a gallon in the District, 2 cents more than the previous record, which was set in 2008.
A year ago, the average national price of a gallon of regular gasoline was about $3.89, according to the Energy Information Administration. The cost was $3.77 in the District and $3.66 in the metropolitan area.
When prices could fall again is anyone's guess, AAA officials said, though some analysts think it could be as early as next month. Others are preparing for a worst-case scenario that could mean $5 per gallon come spring. Mr. Townsend said he didn't see things getting that bad and was hopeful that a recent boost in crude-oil supply from the Middle East, as well as domestic oil production, could help bring down prices.
"The commodity is overheated. It has nothing to do with fundamentals and everything to do with speculation," he said. "We saw a trace of it last year, but this is a more frightful example this year."
Wiping down his car after getting it cleaned at a D.C. gas station, 50-year-old resident William Henderson said he considered the high prices "outrageous."
"I have to decide whether to get a loaf of bread or gallon of gas," he said. "I need both."
He said it costs about $40 to fill up half of his sedan's tank.
"When the needle gets to half, I go and fill it back up," Mr. Henderson said. "But I have to get it when I can get it."
On a busy weekend, D.C. cabbie Bryant Christopher said he might stop to fill his tank once or twice a day.
"I usually try to avoid the $4-per-gallon gas stations," the 45-year-old said, standing next to his tan cab parked at a New York Avenue Exxon station in Northeast Washington, which advertised $3.86 for a gallon of regular gas and $4.01 for diesel.
"I have to drive all the time, so I see the prices fluctuate," he said. "I know the economy is rough, but I've got to drive regardless of the gas prices. I'm patient and just have to hope it goes down."
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