Oregon drivers are getting fed up when they fill up, as gas prices are staying higher than normal for this time of year.

Oregon drivers are getting fed up when they fill up, as gas prices are staying higher than normal for this time of year.

The average price per gallon of regular unleaded gas is sitting above the $3 mark for the first time during a holiday season in Oregon, and the state's 6-cent gas tax increase is set to take effect on New Year's Day.

"How high (the price) will go is the question," said Marie Dodds, AAA Oregon public affairs director.

Crude oil and gas prices are at their highest level since October 2008, and Dodds isn't predicting they will drop anytime soon.

"They may level off a little bit during January and February," she said. "But I think people should gear up and expect higher gas prices this spring and summer, because all signs are pointing towards that right now."

Regardless of the market price, Oregonians will see at least a 6-cent increase in gas prices when the current 24-cent gas tax jumps to 30 cents per gallon on Jan. 1.

For comparison, the gas tax in neighboring Washington is 37.5 cents per gallon.

The first increase in the gas tax since 1993 was passed by the 2009 Oregon Legislature, and is expected to cost the average driver about $30 to $40 a year while raising $300 million for state road construction projects.

Although the price of gas is primarily dictated by the price of crude oil, Dodds said the weakness of the U.S. dollar, investor optimism and a high demand for fuel in 2010 all contributed to the current prices.

"When there are signs that the economic recovery is going full steam ahead, the price of crude tends to go up, because investors feel good about the long-term outlook of the demand for crude oil," Dodds said.

Holiday travel likely will keep the demand for crude oil up, and the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline will stay up along with it, she said.

Currently, the U.S. average is at $3.07, while Oregon's average is $3.08, and the Rogue Valley's price was reported at $3.14.

"People forget sometimes that slightly higher gas prices are a sign of the economy getting better, but of course nobody wants to pay high gas prices," Dodds said.

"We are very unhappy with the high gas prices," said Grants Pass resident Walter Sonner, 67, while filling his Ford F-150 truck on his way through Medford with his wife, Debra Sonner, 57.

The Sonners are retired and said they already have curtailed their driving in response to the high price of gas.

"When you're living on a fixed income, every single price raise hurts," Walter Sonner said. "My income is not going to increase, and we still have to make ends meet, high prices or not."

The Sonners said if gas prices keep going up, they'll consider walking more when they run their errands around town.

"Unless we get some sort of dramatically bad economic news that worries investors, we shouldn't expect prices to fall," Dodds said.

"It's not out of the question for us to be looking at $3.50, $3.60, or even higher state averages come spring and summer."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4468 or at samuelcwheeler@gmail.com.