Increase in gas prices expected to diminish gusto for holiday trips

Many expected to cancel plans, stay closer to home

September 02, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

The surge in gasoline prices is expected to dampen local holiday travel this Labor Day weekend, as motorists curtail their traditional season-ending trips to seashores and resorts.

The AAA motor club says it doubts the holiday will see the 550,000 motorists traveling 50 miles or more the association had predicted before the recent surge in gas prices brought on by Hurricane Katrina. Last year, an estimated 585,000 Marylanders hit the road for the end-of-the-summer weekend.

"It's a huge tragedy happening at a time of the year when people are wrapping up their summers," said spokeswoman Ragina Averella. "This tragedy has, in some cases, dampened the spirits of some travelers, and the high gas prices will certainly probably deter some as well."

Some travelers with flexible plans - such as Bel Air resident Louise Pollard - said they were calling off their trips. Pollard, 64, owns a condo in Ocean City with other members of her family. She traditionally visits at the end of the summer, but Wednesday she decided against the annual trip.

"I get a chance to go up pretty regularly, but no way am I going long distances right now," she said after filling half her tank - for $3.30 a gallon - at a nearby Citgo. "It's too far for the gas."

Nationwide, AAA was expecting 34.5 million holiday motorists - a slight increase of about 0.9 percent over last year - but fewer than the record travel numbers of Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays this year. Averella said she did not know why the state was predicted to have fewer motorists despite a nationwide uptick.

Area retail gas prices hit an average of $2.73 yesterday, up from $2.66 the previous day, according to AAA. The price during last year's Labor Day weekend nationally was $1.87.

Governors of several states, including Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, asked residents to curb discretionary driving over the weekend and stay home, while President Bush also urged drivers to be prudent in consuming energy.

In Maryland, state transportation officials said their concern was keeping traffic moving and efficient. They decided against adjusting pre-hurricane estimates, predicting that 1.2 million vehicles would travel through the Fort McHenry Tunnel and across the Bay Bridge this weekend.

Cheryl Sparks, a state spokeswoman, said the numbers were based on historical data that are increased 3 percent each year to make annual predictions.

"It's unknown how [gas prices are] going to impact traffic on this particular weekend, it's fair to say," she said.

If there are more travelers this holiday, oil analysts say there could scarcely be a worse time for struggling refineries.

"If people are driving more in this severe situation, it's going to put pressure on prices and our supply system," said Sarah Banaszak, a senior economist at the American Petroleum Institute.

Banaszak stressed that while prices are expected to remain high because of the strain on supply, Katrina would probably have only a short-term effect until facilities are restored to operational levels. Averella added that with summer coming to a close, the demand should go down as well.

In the meantime, travel safety advocates are encouraging safe practices in dealing with gas.

Chuck Jackson, president of the Ellicott City-based Citizen Advocates for Safe & Efficient Travel, said he remembers the oil crunch of the 1970s when people drove around with their tanks nearly on empty, looking for the best prices. With many drivers traveling on interstates and in unknown areas, that could be dangerous, he said.

"With prices as high as they've gone, you're going to see more motorists stretching the mileage while they're stretching the buck, and that could compromise the safety of those in the vehicle," he said.

He also warned that carrying portable gas cans could be harmful in the event of high temperatures or an accident.

Pollard said in addition to canceling the trip to Ocean City, she also was going to hitch a ride to a wedding in Westminster today. She covered her eyes as she glanced at the $25 it took to fill half her tank.

"Better get it today, because it's gonna be more tomorrow," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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