LOS ANGELES ‚?? U.S. motorists have seen the national average for regular gasoline rise above $3.50 a gallon in just three different years, but it has never happened this early. The national average hit $3.523 a gallon, the Energy Department said Monday, up 4.1 cents from a week earlier. Analysts said the early price shocker is likely a sign that pain at the pump will rise to some of the highest levels ever this year. ‚??This definitely sets the stage, potentially, for much higher prices later this year,‚?Ě said Brian L. Milne, refined-fuels editor for Telvent DTN, a commodity information services firm. ‚??There‚??s a chance that the U.S. average tops $4 a gallon by June, with some parts of the country approaching $5 a gallon.‚?Ě The average in the Wilkes-Barre area was $3.61 per gallon, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. That was 4 cents higher than a week earlier and 14 percent more than a year ago. Even in 2008, the year that average gasoline prices hit records above $4 nationally and in California during the summer, the U.S. average didn‚??t climb above $3.50 until April 21, according to the Energy Department‚??s weekly survey of service stations. The $3.50 mark also was breached last year, but not until March 6. This time, the dubious milestone was hit weeks before prices usually rise because of refineries typically shutting down for spring maintenance, and weeks before the prices rise again when states switch from less expensive winter blends of gasoline to more complicated and more expensive summer blends. California motorists aren‚??t likely to summon much sympathy for drivers in other states. They are paying an average of $3.835 for a gallon of regular gas, up 7.7 cents from a week earlier. In the past, the state‚??s average had never topped the $3.80 mark before March. And February is usually a month when prices fall. There are plenty of reasons for the high prices, and lots of reasons to expect a big price surge in the spring, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for Oil Price Information Service. ‚??Early February crude oil prices are higher than they‚??ve ever been on similar calendar dates through the years, and the price of crude sets the standard for gasoline prices,‚?Ě Kloza said. In addition, several refineries have been mothballed in recent months, he said, and some of those refineries ‚??represented the key to a smooth spring transition from winter-to-spring gasoline.‚?Ě The annual change in gasoline formulas is mandated by pollution-fighting regulations. Some cities, including Los Angeles and New York, already are closing in on $4 a gallon, said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, a website that tracks gasoline prices.