Pinch of prices reaches commuters

Impact: Caught off guard by the jump in gas prices, some consider second jobs and living without simple pleasures like cable TV.

May 30, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Janice Hauver, a Howard County teacher, says the rising cost of gasoline is setting back her aspirations of owning a house. She is avoiding the mall and considering a second job.

Bill and Mari Baxter, far-traveling parents of a teenage baseball player, are eating at home more. And they're more selective about sales trips from their business in Owings Mills.

Charles Village resident Russel Brown, a Foreign Service officer, sometimes leaves his car at the Greenbelt Metro station rather than drive to his office in Virginia. Barbara Norris plans to work at home part-time to ease the burden of her commute from Hunt Valley to Annapolis. And Paris Marshall of Bel Air might drop cable television if gasoline prices continue to rise.

These motorists - among the 21 percent of Marylanders who regularly commute more than 20 miles a day to their jobs - are making adjustments in their lives to cope with the surge in the price of gas this year.

No one has made drastic changes, yet. They haven't changed jobs or traded in an SUV for a fuel-efficient compact car. But all are feeling the pinch.

For Hauver, 23 and saddled with graduate school loans, it has been a tough year. A gallon of gas that cost $1.48 in Maryland Jan. 1 is more than $2 now - with new increases being piled on daily, according to the AAA.

The rookie teacher, who commutes about 100 miles round-trip from Frederick County to Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia, had figured she would be paying $100 to $150 a month to keep her 1993 Subaru Impreza on the road after 150,000 miles. But it's costing her more than $200.

"My car is like a wimpy little car. There's no reason my car should take $18 worth of gas. That's my parents' car," said Hauver, one of more than 1,600 Frederick County residents who commute to Howard.

Cutting back

Hauver said she commutes from Frederick because it's her hometown, she likes living close to her parents and rent is still relatively affordable. She's aware of the cost of housing in Howard County and doesn't see moving there as a viable option. Each gas increase makes it harder for her to achieve her goals.

"The money I'm putting away for a new car is getting eaten up. The money I'm putting away for a new house is getting eaten up," she said.

She's coping with the increases by cutting back spending on other things.

"I don't go to the mall. I don't go shopping frequently. I don't run [clothing] through the dryer because it lasts longer," Hauver said. "If gas keeps going up, what I would need to do is get another job."

Marshall, who commutes 30 miles each way from Bel Air to Baltimore, said a fill-up that used to cost her $20 is now closer to $30. For her, the increases come at a particularly bad time because she's eight months pregnant and recently separated from her husband. She said she has had to make a lot of cuts.

"Normally I'd take a ride to a friend's house in Columbia. Now I just go to work and come home," said Marshall, an accounts payable manager at Yellow Transportation. "I can't afford it."

If the price of gas continues to rise, Marshall knows what's next on the chopping block: "Cable. I don't have to have cable. That's a luxury to me."

More planning

The Baxter family doesn't face the pressures of a struggling young professional or a single mother, but gas prices still have an effect.

They commute about 50 miles a day between their home in western Ellicott City and their family-run wholesale wine business in Owings Mills. On top of that, they each drive about 150 miles a week calling on customers.

Bill Baxter estimates that gas expenses have risen 40 percent since the couple put together the budget for their company. Each unexpected dollar, he said, comes out of the company's profits - and thus the family's income.

They have coped by requiring their drivers to become more efficient in making deliveries. "We have them sit down with our warehouse manager each morning and plan out their route each day," Baxter said.

The toll from rising gas prices doesn't end with the Baxters' business. They have a son, Andrew, at the University of Arizona, who needs to drive for his Marine ROTC program. The parents have bumped up his monthly allotment by $50-$60 to cover the cost of gas.

Their other son, 15-year-old Brady, plays summer baseball with a Baltimore Metro League team that plays two nights a week and once on weekends in locations as close as Columbia and as far as northern Harford County. Baxter estimates that adds 150 more miles each week.

"It all adds up to a lot more than you think it does," Baxter said. He said the increased cost of gas has not had a big effect on the family's lifestyle, but he and his wife have cut back on restaurant meals and other entertainment.

For Barbara Norris, the cost of commuting 50 miles a day from Hunt Valley to her job with the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund in Annapolis is forcing similar cutbacks.

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