Travelers out of gas?

Rising fuel prices blamed as trips over holiday weekend unexpectedly slump

May 29, 2008|By Michael Dresser and Chris Guy | Michael Dresser and Chris Guy,Sun reporters

Violet Quick would probably have gone to Ocean City for the Memorial Day weekend, but with the price of regular gasoline closing in on $4 a gallon, she decided to stay home and have a cookout.

Quick - whose Suzuki Swift sports an "I am from Pigtown. Washington Village Does Not Exist" bumper sticker - hopes to get to the Shore this summer, but she isn't sure she'll be able to if fuel costs remain high. She was paying $3.89 a gallon yesterday to fill the Suzuki at the Royal Farms store in Lansdowne.

"The way it looks, I might not be going down the ocean," said Quick, who works for United Cerebral Palsy.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, Marylanders appear to have cut back on travel for the traditional kickoff of the summer travel season in significantly greater numbers than the organization projected just last week.

AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella said yesterday that some of the key indicators of travel in the region showed greater decreases than expected.

For instance, Maryland Transportation Authority figures show that the Bay Bridge carried 3 percent fewer vehicles over the holiday weekend than last year. The authority had projected that 355,000 vehicles - a 3 percent increase over 2007 - would make the crossing, but only 333,498 motorists used the bridge going in both directions.

"If that's the case, then the high cost of gas is the likely culprit," said Averella.

Ocean City reported a 13 percent decline in visitors compared with last year - down to 226,700 from 259,800 - despite four days of near-perfect weather.

Travel along the Interstate 95 corridor also was down sharply. Traffic on the Delaware Memorial Bridge, one of the busiest crossings between Washington and New York, fell by 5.6 percent. Toll collections at the I-95 plaza in Perryville dropped about 6 percent. Traffic at the Fort McHenry Tunnel was down 7 percent.

In Maryland, the price of gas continued to inch closer to $4 as the statewide average for regular unleaded hit $3.93 yesterday, setting a record for the 21st straight day.

The price of crude oil, the primary cause of the increases at the pump, seemed to moderate in early trading yesterday, only to rebound to above $131 a barrel by the time trading closed.

At the Lansdowne Royal Farms, some gas-pumping customers said the prices haven't changed their travel habits. But others said the pummeling at the pump had curbed their appetite for travel.

John Helie of Randallstown said his family likes to drive to Bethesda and stay at a Marriott hotel there. He said this year they decided to stay closer to home.

"We find ourselves probably going to Patapsco State Park and going on a hike," said the Baltimore County school system employee. "We still try to do nice things but, yes, it's catching up with us."

Averella said that unless there is a significant drop in gas prices, the Memorial Day weekend travel decline could bode ill for the summer.

"What we saw for Maryland travel certainly would be an indicator of what is to come - particularly as it relates to summer driving," she said.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Ocean City, where officials recently brushed off the 1970s slogan that the resort is only half a tank away. Despite their efforts, it appears that many visitors decided that was half a tank too much.

The 13 percent decline in visitors left Ocean City merchants scratching their heads, said Susan Jones, who heads the city's Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Association.

"We saw a real mix this time - some hotels were sold out, some with plenty of vacancies," said Jones. "The media have put gas prices and the economy in people's minds. We don't have a crystal ball; there's no real way to predict the rest of the summer."

Town spokeswoman Donna Abbott played down the significance of the numbers - particularly because last year's figures were unusually high.

"We pulled the numbers for the last few years and we're up a little one year, down a little the next," she said. "The weather was great, but when it's a little hotter, we'll pick up, too. Memorial Day isn't the Big Boom for us that people think because kids are still in school. By the Fourth of July, we'll hit 350,000 as long as the weather cooperates."

Chris Maxa, general manager for the Kite Loft stores that line the Boardwalk, said a steady breeze made for big business.

"I don't want to reveal the percentages, but we beat last year's sales numbers," Maxa said. "It's been a little sluggish during the early weeks, but it was a great weekend after being cooped up for a while. In our business, wind is everything."

Tim Sullivan, an economics professor at Towson University, said the weekend's mediocre travel numbers show that people are uncertain about the overall economy.

"People are just nervous about what's happening, and their natural reaction is to pull back," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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Gas at $4. Energy bills up 72%. Summer temperatures approaching.

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Online

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MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND

3 % Drop in travelers on the Bay Bridge during the holiday weekend

13% Decline in visitors to Ocean City compared to last year.

7% Drop in traffic at the Fort McHenry tunnel

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