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Border crossings into Whatcom are up 16 percent. What's driving this increase?

Higher gas prices in British Columbia appears to be a factor in southbound border traffic into Whatcom County as Canadians come down to fill up gas tanks.
Higher gas prices in British Columbia appears to be a factor in southbound border traffic into Whatcom County as Canadians come down to fill up gas tanks. The Bellingham Herald file

Border traffic into Whatcom County continues to increase and gas prices could be a big reason for it.

Nearly 3 million people have traveled southbound through the five Whatcom County border crossings in the first quarter of 2018, a 16 percent increase compared to a year ago. That's also the highest first quarter total since 2015, when the Canadian dollar was hovering around 85 cents compared to the U.S. dollar at a time when the strong loonie was coming to an end. That's according to data collected by Western Washington University's Border Policy Research Institute.

After talking with border officials, gas prices appears to be the one of the main factors behind the recent increase, said Laurie Trautman, director at the Border Policy Research Institute. With an average price of $3.39 a gallon, Bellingham gas prices are high compared to the U.S. average of $2.77 a gallon, according to AAA Washington. However Bellingham's prices are a relative bargain compared to gas prices in Vancouver B.C., which are hovering around $4.60 a gallon in U.S. dollars.

The Canadian dollar remained relatively stable in the first quarter of the year, generally staying in the 78-80 cent range. Southbound border traffic usually responds to big swings in the Canadian currency, so an uptick in traffic now indicates that something else is influencing border crossings.

Trautman said it is difficult to say at this point whether Canadians who are filling up on gas in Whatcom County are also doing more shopping or other types of traveling in this area. The institute is planning to do a passenger vehicle survey this summer, which should give a better idea of Canadian travel patterns in Whatcom County, she said.

Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, said he expects the gas price gap difference between British Columbia and Whatcom County to remain wide for the coming weeks before beginning to narrow. Gasbuddy is an online resource for tracking gas prices and trends.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz
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