Gas pain might be changing our ways

The Baltimore Sun

It had to happen sometime. With gasoline prices pushing $3.50 a gallon, Marylanders might actually be changing their driving habits. The next thing you know, we'll be stopping for red lights.

Last week, AAA Mid-Atlantic released a survey in which more than half of its Maryland members surveyed - 54 percent - said they are driving less often because of the soaring cost of filling their tanks.

As of Friday, the average cost of regular gasoline in Maryland was $3.27 a gallon - almost equaling the record set after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. People who use premium grades of gas - if there are any left out there - are already paying more than $3.50.

The AAA survey probably understates the driving cutback because it was conducted in the last quarter of last year-before the price of crude oil went through the roof and the question was still if the nation was sliding toward recession.

AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella said Maryland motorists had remained steadfast in their driving habits through recent gas price spikes - choosing to cut back in other parts of the family budget.

But now - faced with a looming downturn, the mortgage debacle and resurgent inflation - driving habits are no longer sacrosanct.

Averella noted that the price of diesel, which fuels the trucks that bring goods to market, is more than $4.

"We're seeing higher prices for milk and things like that," she said.

The AAA survey also found that 9 percent of Maryland drivers say they are now driving more fuel-efficient vehicles to help cope with piracy at the pump. That might not sound like much, but it strikes me as significant that almost one in 10 Marylanders would make a major lifestyle change and choose a car for reasons other than zoom-zoom-zoom.

The survey found that households with more than $75,000 in income were almost three times as likely to drive a fuel-efficient vehicle than those that make less. You have to make money to save money.

The survey also found that 6 percent of those surveyed say they are taking mass transit more often because of gasoline prices. It would come as absolutely no surprise if that were the last figure to go up and the first to go down. For many Marylanders, using mass transit is equated with slipping from the ranks of the middle class.

Transportation fund

Once again, the Maryland General Assembly has raided the state's Transportation Trust Fund to close a budget gap left after the scuttling of the ill-advised computer services tax adopted during last year's special session.

This time it was a $50 million-a-year hit for five years. It represents a significant give-back of the $450 million a year in transportation funds raised during the special session.

By digging into the trust fund, Gov. Martin O'Malley joins his predecessors - Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - in using the trust fund to paper over a budget gap rather than make more difficult choices.

The raid would seem to give Republicans a good issue with which to beat O'Malley over the head. But that was their Senate minority leader proposing to divert $150 million from the fund. His amendment failed. (Voters may forget. Highway contractors? Never.)

The AAA's Averella called the diversion "probably one of the fastest raids on the Transportation Trust Fund we've seen."

"The money that was approved in the fall of 2007 has likely not even been received, yet it's already being robbed," she said. "Clearly, there's no trust in the state's Transportation Trust Fund. It should be called the state's cookie jar."

At least it's a bipartisan cookie jar.

There have been proposals in the past to raise the bar against raiding the fund by requiring a supermajority in each house to divert transportation money to general purposes. They've always been defeated by the argument that it might be necessary to be able to shift funds to deal with a fiscal emergency.

So could somebody explain what the emergency was?

Then there's potholes

That, of course, brings us to the subject of potholes.

It wasn't a particularly brutal winter. No blizzards. Not much in the way of deep freezes or ice storms. But for some reason, I'm noticing a lot of potholes blooming this spring - and in some mighty conspicuous places.

For instance, there are craters in the Interstate 395 ramps going into and out of downtown that could be photographed from the Hubble Space Telescope. It apparently takes the eyes of a trained highway engineer to miss them.

To celebrate pothole season, it seems appropriate to ask readers to nominate some of the biggest, most persistent potholes around town. If enough entries come in, we might just be able to crown a Baltimore's Best Pothole 2008.

Please write in with your entries, providing precise locations and photographs. Entries will be judged on size, hazard potential and length of time that authorities have overlooked them. Extra points for particularly creative pothole prose, with strict adherence to the truth optional.

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