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The Baltimore Sun

Travelers hit the road; pumps hit back

Sun Staff

When gas prices hit $3 last week, Baltimore resident Michael Baker had second thoughts about traveling to New York City for a family gathering.

But, heck, Labor Day is the last holiday of the summer, and Baker figured he might as well enjoy the long weekend before "things get hectic."

So he and his siblings took a two-car caravan to Brooklyn, despite the higher-than-ever gasoline prices looming over their trip.

"What option did we have - ride a bicycle or a scooter to New York City?" said Baker, 23, as he took a driving break yesterday morning at the Chesapeake House rest area along Interstate 95 in North East.

Baker was among the hundreds of thousands of motorists who hit Maryland roads yesterday as they headed home after season-ending trips.

But the ever-increasing gas prices brought on by Hurricane Katrina dampened the mood of some travelers, who reluctantly dug deeper into their pockets.

"The cost of gas is cutting into my spending," lamented Connie Turnage, 48, who along with her 8-year-old son, Jordan, was headed back to Richmond, Va., after a trip to Philadelphia. "Every time I fill up, it went up $10 more."

Turnage vowed that the Labor Day trip would be her last for the year unless gasoline becomes more affordable.

After predicting that 550,000 Marylanders would travel 50 miles or more on this holiday, AAA Mid-Atlantic said the recent surge in gas prices likely would deter some travelers. The organization's survey was conducted before the disaster in the Gulf Coast cut off some of the nation's oil supply.

Last year, an estimated 585,000 Marylanders hit the road Labor Day weekend.

"Although many people still traveled because it was a nice weekend, we certainly believe that some people - due to gas prices and the volatility in the gas situation - may have opted to stay home," said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

State transportation officials predicted that 1.7 million vehicles - motorists from Maryland and from other states - would pass through the state's toll facilities this holiday weekend.

No backups reported Traffic flow and volume looked good yesterday afternoon, with no major accidents or backups reported in the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels or at the Bay Bridge, said Bryon Johnston, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.

"At this point, things have been really quiet," Johnston said.

Those who braved the highways did so with a keen eye on the pumps.

In Maryland, gas prices hit an average of $3.26 yesterday, up from $2.34 a month ago, according to AAA.

Many travelers checked the skyrocketing gas prices like Wall Street brokers watching the stock market, trying to find the best deals.

Matthew Keating, 33, of Woodberry Forest, Va., was traveling with his wife, two young daughters and the family dog, Copper.

When he left Thursday afternoon, headed for his brother's home in Connecticut, he noticed gas on the New Jersey Turnpike was $2.89 a gallon.

On his way back yesterday morning, the price had climbed to $3.12. He stopped off to fill up his Honda Odyssey, but the line was too long.

Higher and higher He soon regretted his decision when he saw that gas was selling for $3.49 at Chesapeake House, where he was walking Copper with his 19-month-old daughter, Alexa.

"Hopefully, we'll make it to Virginia" without filling up again, Keating said. "We're rolling the dice at this point."

Others, such as Christina Nabholz, 26, left her car behind in New York City and took the bus to Washington for a get-together with college friends.

The round trip cost her $40 without the hassle of driving and traffic.

"The gas prices were too high," said Nabholz, who was eating a breakfast sandwich during a stop at Chesapeake House. "It would have cost me $40 to fill up, plus toll. The bus is so much cheaper."

The surging gas prices did not alter John Wells' plans to visit his sister-in-law in Clinton in Prince George's County. His biggest concern: whether there would be enough gasoline to go around.

His concern was unfounded, though, and Wells said he had "a beautiful weekend," as he headed home to New York City yesterday afternoon.

Crowded with travelers By lunchtime yesterday, the Maryland House travel stop in Aberdeen was packed with hungry motorists and those taking bathroom breaks.

At the Greyhound station in the Baltimore Travel Plaza, Shelly Cunningham and her son, Benjamin, were waiting for a 2 p.m. bus to New York City that was running 25 minutes late. Cunningham came to visit her aunt, Lea Ann Stringer, in Cockeysville.

"I go back to school tomorrow," said Cunningham, a public school teacher in Brooklyn. "This is my last bit of summer."

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