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Consumers taking a hit over soaring gasoline prices

March 22, 2004|BY BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

As gas prices continue to spike, consumers said they are finding themselves with less money in their wallets and fewer ideas for road trips in 2004.

Meanwhile, a AAA spokesman said the national and Maryland state record for price per gallon could be broken as early as today.

John White, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman, said the average price in the state for regular unleaded gasoline rose to just less than $1.71 per gallon by Friday. White said the gap between the current average and the record is about .03 cent. Meanwhile, the national average now is $1.73 per gallon, 1 cent short of a record.

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Among four gas stations in Hagerstown's Dual Highway area polled Sunday, the average price per gallon was equal to the current state average - $1.71 per gallon.

White said the price may exceed $2 per gallon by the end of the summer.

"People should expect to see the record set more than once this year," White said. "No one is looking forward to that."

Motorists said continuing increases are putting a strain on personal finances and making it hard to plan weekend getaways for the warm-weather months.

"It's ridiculous," said Dominick Marinelli of Hagerstown. "You want to make trips, but you can't. It's not just here; you get to a place like New York, and it's even higher there."

"For those of us on a tight budget, a scheduled budget, something like a 20- or 30-cent rise will have a big effect on long trips," said John Kane of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Kane said he believes people are not irate about the increases because of "20 years' worth" of gas-price jumps.

"People aren't happy about it, but it's something they've been conditioned to," Kane said.

Hagerstown resident Chico Hernandez, a Frederick, Md.-area minister, said he believes that increases are a product of gouging, not necessity.

"I travel a lot, so it's been kinda hard," Hernandez said.

Al Martin, director of finance for the city of Hagerstown, said the increases have even affected budget planning. He said the increases have caused the cost of petroleum products to be about 20 percent higher than this fiscal year's budgeted amount, about $180,000.

Martin said the city likely will have to budget more than $200,000 for next year.

"We're going to run over this year, but I can't say what the exact amount is going to be," Martin said. "What I can tell you is we're increasing our budget for petroleum products by 15 to 20 percent.

Hagerstown resident Debbie Duffey said that because the county has a small, rural population, there are few alternatives.

"I'm not driving any less. You have no choice because there's no mass transit around Hagerstown," Duffey said.

White said he believes continuing increases, if dramatic enough, may cause consumers to abandon their trucks and sport utility vehicles for more gas-efficient cars, including compacts and hybrid vehicles.

"This could be the year people go beyond complaining about gas prices and change buying habits," he said.

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