People wait at the Mill Creek bus stop in Kansas City, Mo.
People wait at the Mill Creek bus stop in Kansas City, Mo., in June. As gas prices rise, local officials say they've seen more interest in other modes of transportation. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

John Davis of Prairie Village doesn’t fill up his gas tank these days like he did before prices started soaring.    

Instead, he spends $20 or $30 on each trip to the pump. And he’s been driving less and cutting his spending for other things.

“If you just spent $50 on gas out of your paycheck, you have $50 less to spend on DoorDash or the grocery store or everything else,” Davis said this week while gassing up his BMW SUV at a QuikTrip in Shawnee, Kansas.

At the same QuikTrip, Kayla Sims of Overland Park said she has been driving about the same amount as before gas prices started straining budgets.

“I pay attention to the gas prices, but of course we have to pay for it, so … you can’t really get away from it,” Sims said while at the pump. “I try to fill my car up once a week.”

Still, the situation is a little better here than in many other parts of the country. 

As of June 30, Missouri and Kansas are among the 10 states with the second lowest average gas prices, according to Gasbuddy.com, which also tracks national average gas prices in real time. The average price in Missouri is $4.59 a gallon and in Kansas it’s $4.57. The national average price is $4.84.

Gas taxes per gallon in Missouri and Kansas are also among the country’s lowest. Missouri adds a gas tax of 17.4 cents a gallon and Kansas adds 24 cents. The nationwide average is 29 cents.

And despite the economic strain, more people will travel this Fourth of July weekend after having curtailed travel during the pandemic’s earlier years, said Frank Lenk, director of research services for the Mid-America Regional Council.

In fact, AAA Missouri forecasts a record 47.9 million people nationwide will travel at least 50 miles from June 30 through July 4, with a record 42 million people expected to travel by automobile and the rest by airplane, bus, train and cruise — the highest numbers since the organization started tracking the statistics  in 2000, said Nick Chabarria, spokesperson for the organization’s St. Louis headquarters.

AAA forecasts nearly 844,600 trips in Missouri, with almost 746,500 by automobile. It forecasts 3.5 million trips, with 3.1 million by automobile, for the seven-state region including Kansas and Missouri. 

“We’re in a unique situation this year, where this is the first summer in about two years that travel is essentially open,” Chabarria said. “We know folks want to get out and are finding ways to get out. … Our message for drivers right now is expect gas prices to remain elevated throughout the summer travel season.”

RideshareKC sees increase in calls

People who have low income or are living on fixed incomes are “the ones really hurting” the most from higher gas and food prices, Lenk said.

“Low-income people tend to be concentrated in certain parts of town, but jobs are spread all over,” he said. “The price of gas has nearly doubled since the bottom of the pandemic. People are feeling it every time they fill up.”

Karen Clawson, MARC’s Air Quality and RideshareKC program manager, said she had received more phone calls about RideshareKC in the past six months, before gas prices started rising but especially since gas exceeded $4 a gallon. 

Karen Clawson is MARC’s Air Quality and RideshareKC program manager. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

RideshareKC provides commuters with free services, including carpooling and vanpooling matches, and information on biking, walking and telecommuting.

Why are gas prices high?

Several factors typically determine gas prices at the pump. These include costs to extract crude oil, refine it and transport it. 

The pandemic initially decreased demand for oil, leading suppliers to pause some production. But as demand rebounds, supply continues to lag because restarting production is a difficult process

And the war in Ukraine has worsened these problems, Lenk said.

“The conditions under which we made decisions no longer hold, and so we’re sort of caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “And there’s no easy way out of it until gasoline prices go down. … We’ve got a lifestyle still dependent on being able to consume large quantities of gasoline. … Americans like their larger cars.”

Three major oil companies — ExxonMobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp. — all reported big first-quarter profit increases compared to last year’s first quarter. But Lenk said “it’s more complex than to just blame oil companies” for higher gas prices at the pump.

“I would say they’re benefiting from the system that we have set up, which is a market-based system that allows prices to rise in response to supply and demand, and they happen to be selling inelastically demanded goods,” Lenk said. This means when gas prices rise, people continue consuming “what they need for their daily lives.”

The oil industry sees an uncertain market and is unwilling to make long-term capital investments to increase oil supply, Lenk said, but he added that “there is a period where they’re making money off the pain that’s being caused by the sudden price increase. Then the question is what do we do about that?”

Talk has surfaced of levying a windfall tax on oil companies based on rising gas prices constituting an emergency, Lenk said, “and try to figure out some way to still allow them to profit so they will invest but be able to funnel some money back to help those who are hurting the most.”

“That’s a very nuanced policy,” he said. “It’s really hard to do in the best of times and … in polarized times. And so doing nothing becomes likely.”

On June 22, President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass legislation to suspend the federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon through Sept. 30

Lenk said the effects of such legislative action would be “modest no matter what happens” — savings of about $2 to $4 a week on a tank of gas. If Congress were to pass such legislation, it would say that “we’re concerned about this … and we are doing our best to bring the price down.”

But Davis, the Prairie Village resident, said he thought oil companies were gouging the public “a little bit.”

“They’re taking advantage of it for sure,” he said. “I think this is a time when they could. So, people gripe a little bit (but) everyone’s still paying.”

Lenk said the “ultimate endgame” is to stop dependence on fossil fuels and transition to new technologies that are “good for the climate, our budgets and our national security.”

“These kinds of price rises remind us how vulnerable we really are,” he said. 

That endgame also requires gradually increasing the use of other transportation besides cars, including public transit and biking, and rethinking long-term city planning, Lenk said.

“It’s a hard lesson to keep having to relearn,” he said. “But at some point, we need to learn it, take it to heart and gradually shift to these alternative energy sources.”

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Jerry LaMartina

Jerry LaMartina is a freelance reporter for The Beacon. He's worked as a reporter, electronic-media copywriter, editor and website editor for more than 25 years.