Gas prices in Massachusetts haven’t been this low in years — but most of us don’t really have anywhere to go.
A gallon of regular gas in Massachusetts cost an average of $2.05 at the end of March, according to the US Energy Information Administration. That’s the lowest since average prices hit $2.02 in April 2016. It’s down more than 40 cents from the end of February (which admittedly seems nearly as distant as 2016), and nearly 75 cents from late April 2019, a measure of good news for workers who are still on the roads.
And in just the past week, prices have dropped much further. The price tracker site GasBuddy was showing prices in the $1.50 a gallon range at discount stations on Tuesday; on Monday, AAA pegged the statewide average at $1.99, compared to $1.92 across the country.
“It’s huge,” said Jeff Durham, a Dorchester resident who drives 80 miles a day as a merchandiser for Polar Seltzer, work that is still considered essential for keeping shelves stocked. He’s seen prices as low as $1.45, and the weekly savings covers “maybe a dinner and a breakfast” for his family.
Brian Mark, president of CMS Landscape on Cape Cod, said the lower prices are helping offset higher costs elsewhere, such as workers arriving at sites in individual trucks to ensure social distancing.
“We’re probably driving less efficiently, in terms of sending multiple trucks to a site that might only need one truck in normal circumstances,” he said. “With gas prices being as low as they are, if we were going to have to do it, this would be the time ... one of the very small silver linings to the situation.”
But under orders and advisories to avoid nonessential travel, most motorists in Massachusetts and beyond aren’t taking advantage of the low prices. It’s been a running joke on social media: Gas prices dropped now that we can’t go anywhere.
That’s not really the right way to think about it, analysts note. It is that very lack of demand for gas that has played a huge role in the sharp price drop. And the other major factor — an influx of oil supply spurred by a pricing feud between Saudi Arabia and Russia — was sparked by demand concerns as the coronavirus began to sweep across the world, said Patrick De Haan, a gas market analyst with the Boston-based price-tracking company GasBuddy.
“Since nobody can go anywhere, gas prices are going down because there is a huge reduction in demand,” De Haan said. “Inflation adjusted, we may ultimately end at the lowest prices that we’ve seen this century.”
The big price drop arrived just after the state House of Representatives voted to increase the gas tax from 24 cents a gallon to 29 cents, and by an additional 4 cents on diesel fuel. Governor Charlie Baker also had championed a climate program that could further increase gas prices. Now, it’s unclear whether the increase, part of transportation funding legislation that had been considered a major priority on Beacon Hill, will even receive a vote in the Senate anytime soon with the state’s attention dominated by the pandemic.
The roads aren’t seeing anything like the notorious traffic from before the virus shut down life as we knew it. Volume on some state highways is down by 50 percent or more, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Those numbers match findings from the Washington state-based travel data company INRIX, which found that vehicle trips and miles traveled were down 57 percent in the Boston area last week.
With people going a bit stir-crazy inside, the idea of hitting the open road is particularly tempting nowadays, cars making for a particularly socially distant form of travel.
But Baker’s office on Monday emphasized that Massachusetts residents should avoid nonessential travel. Officials in other states with stay-at-home orders have noted that going for a joy ride could lead to a vehicle breakdown or crash that would then require interactions with a tow truck driver or police.
Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for AAA Northeast, mostly agreed, especially for long trips. A scenic drive through the White Mountains, she noted, would increase the likelihood that a motorist would need to stop for gas or food or the restroom, and therefore increase their exposure to other people. But there may be a place for short drives, she said.
“Our mantra is, ‘Don’t go far and stay in your car,’” Maguire said. “If you do travel far, you could be compelled to stop. It’s not about getting in the car. It’s about what you do when you’re compelled to get out of the car. So that’s the risk.”
But there is another, much smaller risk for car owners: leaving a vehicle sitting in the driveway for weeks on end could cause the battery to die, said Molly Brodeur, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers, which represents auto shops.
She suggested motorists drive their car about once a week for at least 20 minutes — a trip to the grocery store or a short drive around town. Starting the car but letting it idle outdoors in the driveway isn’t as effective, but is better than nothing, she said. Another option, especially with older vehicles, is to let the car stay put and buy a trickle charger to power up the battery at the end of this.
Whenever that is.