Gerald Jones, a North Carolina trucker with a liking for feathered Stetsons and Texas boots, has dreamed of owning his own rig since he began driving semitrailers at 16.
He works hard, chasing his dream down highways across the Lower 48, through 16-hour days and 100,000-mile years.
Yesterday, though, as he hurried toward Philadelphia loaded with 40,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, he fell just a little bit farther behind his goal of quitting his trucking-company job and going out on his own.
That is because the federal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel increased by a nickel per gallon yesterday, socking motorists already reeling from the 30 percent rise in fuel prices since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.
"There is no end in sight," said Mr. Jones, who pulled into a Jessup truck stop on his way north.
Motorists around the region reacted with a mixture of outrage and resignation to the tax increase, coming on top of high fuel prices. Last week, the price of a gallon of self-service regular unleaded gasoline sold at a nationwide average of $1.366.
Many service stations, including Rehak's Towson Park Exxon on York Road, refused to absorb any ofthe cost of the tax, raising the price on all fuel grades by a full nickel.
That didn't please some customers.
"To put a tax on gas when it is already so high is kind of sneaky," said James McElwaine, a University of Baltimore law student who commutes from his home in Olney.
Yesterday, Mr. McElwaine pumped 12 gallons of gasoline into his Plymouth Laser at a Shell station on Russell Street, paying a little
more than $17. He says he has no choice because there is no public transportation that would allow him to get him to school and to his job in Greenbelt.
"There is nothing you can do but pay," said Mr. McElwaine, who said he checks his tire pressure and keeps his car tuned to save gas.
An independent trucker from Wisconsin, stopping at the Jessup truck stop, said he wouldn't have to buy much fuel before reaching the Midwest because his rig has two 120-gallon tanks.
Fuel prices there are about 15 cents per gallon cheaper than in Maryland, he said.
"This is one place I won't buy," he said at the truck stop, where diesel was selling for a cash price of $1.49per gallon.
"It's too damn high."
Other truckers who idled in the Truckers Inn parking lot nearby said they sold their rigs and went to work for trucking companies years ago because of the escalating cost of fuel.
"When fuel goes up and freight pays the same, you've got to get out," said Robert E. Edwards of Maud, Texas, who sold his Freightliner in 1986.
The federal tax increase, the first since 1982, will boost the federal levy on gasoline and automotive diesel fuel to 14.1 cents per gallon.
Uncle Sam began taxing gasoline in 1932, pumping the proceeds into the general treasury to help balance the federal budget.
Since 1956, however, the federal gas tax has been used exclusively to pay for building the nation's roads, including the 42,800-mile interstate highway system, according to Keith F. Mulrooney, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.
With the tax increase, the federal government will return to the practice of taxing motorists to support non-road spending.
The biggest portion -- 50 percent -- of the $25 billion that the tax increase is expected to generate over its five-year life will go toward reducing the federal budget deficit.
Only 40 percent will be reserved for Highway Trust Fund road construction, with the remaining 10 percent supporting mass transit.
Some motorists said they felt betrayed that taxes they pay on gasoline will no longer be used exclusively to rebuild the nation's crumbling roads and bridges.
"I can see using the money for road improvement," said Carol Brown, a Jessup woman who spends $10 to $15 per week on gasoline. "But using it for the deficit is a joke."
Bruce H. Glatt, a Federal Hill eyeglass salesman who has put about 180,000 miles on his car since 1983, said, "I think it's an abomination. It increases the cost of just about everything for the little guy without taxing the rich."
But some said taxes are a form of collective savings, paying for bridges,roads and other services. Without them, they said, society would be much poorer.
"People complain about taxes, but they want libraries and fire stations and to send soldiers in the Persian Gulf," said Kate Noone, a graphic artist from Linthicum who drives a pickup truck to her job in Baltimore. "If you want the services, you have to pay for them."