On the Poverty-Stricken North Coast, Drivers Are Paying the Highest Prices for Gas in the Nation

Rising gas prices

Rising gas prices

Rising gas prices in northern California’s rural counties.

As the price of gasoline climbs, California’s North Coast finds itself uniquely positioned to feel the squeeze. With a population steeped in poverty who often live in far-flung rural places requiring personal vehicles and extended commutes, our communities are set to experience acute economic stress unlike any in the nation.

The average price of gasoline in the United States is currently the highest in history at $4.61/gallon. For an average Californian, now paying $6.13/gallon, the nation’s highest average gallon of gas sounds like a relief.

AAA’s gas price map indicates California’s North Coast has some of the highest average gas prices in the nation. Humboldt and Del Norte Counties are averaging around $6.55/gallon, Sonoma County averages $6.35/gallon, and Marin County is currently at $6.41/gallon.

The notable outlier on the North Coast is Mendocino County, currently averaging $6.04/gallon, a price closer to much of California’s Central Valley.

Hopland gas station. [Photo by Matt LaFever]

Hopland gas station. [Photo by Matt LaFever]

A report published by the US Census Bureau in September 2021 revealed that California has the highest average poverty rate of any state with 15.4% of residents falling beneath the poverty line. The District of Columbia was the only location in the US higher than California at 16.5%.

At this moment, the state with the highest number of impoverished residents is also the state with the highest price for gasoline.

The California counties paying the most for gas fall within two categories: urban areas with robust economic opportunities for their residents or rural counties with limited economic opportunities. One of those groups is more equipped to adapt to these prices than the other.

As per data from the US Census Bureau, 14.3% of Mendocino County live in poverty, 15.8% of Humboldt County’s residents live in poverty, Trinity County stands at 18%, and Del Norte has the most impoverished residents at 18.5%. In fact, every California county north of the 40th parallel has at least 13% of its residents living in poverty.

[Picture from Melissa Bradley]

Gas prices yesterday in Cooks Valley at the southern end of Humboldt County. [Picture from Melissa Bradley]

Leggett resident Melissa Bradley told us that despite limiting her trips to save on gas and trying to save money in other ways, the rising prices of gas, groceries, and PG&E leave her living paycheck to paycheck.

She posted a picture of the gas prices at Cooks Valley’s Patriot Gas where a regular gallon of gas was $6.79/gallon.

One commenter responded with a single word…”Insane.”

Roger Gitlin, a retired county supervisor in Del Norte County, posted a picture of a Chevron in Crescent City where the regular gallon of gas was $6.85. He said he monitors the prices at that particular station and it is now the most expensive in Del Norte County.

As residents of the North Coast feel the financial strain, so are government budgets. Mendocino County’s 5th District Supervisor Ted Williams described the county’s current fiscal trajectory: “Costs are rising on a curve steeper than revenue growth.” He said the county is projected to take in less revenue in the upcoming year, but “the greater risk to maintaining service delivery is the inflating costs, including fuel.” With a possible financial storm on the horizon, Supervisor Williams said the county is exploring how to bolster its revenue stream including sales tax, property tax, and bed taxes. Most of which will also hit low-income residents hard.

North County gas station.

North County gas station. [Picture from Roger Gitlin]

As gasoline rises, interest in electric vehicles has increased, so much so that they are now regionally in short supply. Dan Sevier, a salesperson at Ukiah’s Thurston Auto Group, said that dealerships all around Northern California are seeing a rise in demand which cannot be met with the current supply. “When gas prices go up, fuel-efficient cars are all anybody wants, even non-hybrid cars like the Civic and the Corolla are very hard to come by,” Sevier told us.

Sevier has worked with many customers whose entire goal with their new vehicle is to save money on gas. With the price of today’s gasoline, Sevier told us, “Somebody who is driving a full-size truck can save enough money in gas to make a car payment and buy gas for a compact.”

Public transportation, often another suggested solution to climbing gas prices, is in short supply in California’s far-flung north as compared to its urban areas. For many living in outlying areas, the bus systems of our rural highways do not meet our transportation needs.

According to the US Department of Transportation20% of America’s rural residents have no access to intercity bus transportation and 59% have no access to intercity rail transportation.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law specifically carves out space to address rural America’s transportation needs including providing $10.8 billion to rural communities for bus transportation, $300 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, $40 billion for bridge enhancement, and others.

But, plans out of Washington DC feel hollow as so many on the North Coast watch prices rise faster than wages. A person can only cut so many corners and live on a shoestring for so long.

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