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Hauling lumber or a big family? Then you’re extra sensitive to Utah’s gas prices

The cost of gas at a Smith’s grocery fuel stop in Salt Lake City, April 2, 2024.
Saige Miller
The cost of gas at a Smith’s grocery fuel stop in Salt Lake City, April 2, 2024.

USA Today declared Utah as the nation’s most affordable state, but maybe don’t tell Jill Hays that.

The mother of six spends hours on the road in her eight-passenger Ford Expedition running errands, chauffeuring kids to and from activities or piling in the family to go skiing. Hitting the gas station is a weekly routine. And it’s not necessarily a cheap endeavor.

“I don't even like saying these things out loud and admitting how much gas we probably spend a week at our house, but we are probably spending close to $300 in gas a week,” she said.

USA Today calculated that the average Utahn spends around 1.8% or around $1,600 of their annual income on fuel, making it the 14th cheapest state to fill up the tank. Hays fills up her 30-gallon tank “about once a week,” and spends “close to $100” every time. That doesn’t even take into account the family's three other cars.

Back when she was in high school, she recalled filling up her Subaru for $12.

“I remember thinking, ‘I have five bucks. Oh, I can fill up half my car.’ Now that's unheard of,” she said. “When I think about my lifespan of living in Utah and the gas prices I've seen. I think it's outrageous.”

The family tries to take advantage of fuel savings at Costco or with grocery store reward programs to get a discount per gallon. If she wasn’t part of a carpooling group, Hays said she would spend more time in the car plus an estimated $150 more a week in gas.

“When you think about $300, that's crazy expensive. Along with now the food bill that has skyrocketed,” she said. “I also feel bad for these kids who want to have bigger families. And just between a few of these things are like, ‘Wow it’s becoming super unaffordable.’”

As of April 2, AAA said the average cost of a gallon of gas in Utah was $3.83. That’s about 0.30 cents higher than the national average and up nearly 22% than a month ago heading into the spring break season. Hays estimates her family spends around $1,200 a month on gas alone. That’s roughly $14,400 a year on the necessity, which Hays said accounts for “probably 10 to 15%” of the household’s annual income.

But what the Hays family pays for gas in a year is a weekly occurrence for Dalon Horner, the Utah regional manager of Mountainland Transportation in Heber City.

“I spend $15,000 a week on fuel,” he said. “$1,000 to $1,200 every other day.”

Horner, whose dad owns the family-run business, said the company has 13 employees and 15 trucks that travel across state boundaries to drop off housing materials like lumber, shingles and drywall. Since the trucks are always moving, Horner said “gas is a huge part of our budget,” especially when the 200-gallon tank gets an average of 5.5 miles per gallon.

Right now, the average gallon of diesel in Utah is $3.96. That’s cheaper than a month ago, down 5%, but still burdensome, Horner said, for a company that spends nearly $200,000 a year on gas alone, or “40-50%” of their annual overhead cost. Just a few extra cents can impact things.

“Yeah, it hurts me, but it hurts my employees even more. I can't just go raise their wages because the fuel price went up $0.30, like, it came directly out of my profit margin. So I can't go and raise theirs.”

For Horner, the “sweet spot” is around $3.15 a gallon. That price puts him in a better “cash flow” spot where he’s spending more like “$10,000 or $12,000” for gas while getting paid the same amount for a haul. By saving $200-$300 on fuel, Horner said he can “pay my guys better. My guys can afford to go do more. And just the general economy does better.”

Gas prices though in Utah “aren’t much better than other places” throughout the nation. Horner’s crews have to stop and get gas fairly frequently out of state while delivering. So the notion that Utah is affordable, partly due to its fuel costs, “is a false statement” in his eyes.

“Everything is so tied to fuel and to transportation. There's nothing that you buy as a consumer that has not been on a truck.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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