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Gas prices rise for fourth straight week

The Easter weekend has brought rising gasoline prices — and many Maryland drivers are hitting the brakes.

Home health care aide Jennifer Wofford has limited the number of patients she's seeing. Maeghan Thomas is cutting down on going out. More people are using mass transit. And AAA Mid-Atlantic is receiving more roadside calls for assistance from drivers who have run out of gas.

Over the past week, prices continued what looks like an inexorable march toward the $4 mark. Maryland prices rose 3 cents to match the national average for a gallon of regular of $3.85 — a dollar more than last year at this time. It was the fourth straight week that prices have increased.

The average price has climbed by 78 cents since the beginning of the year and is threatening to reach the $4 mark by Memorial Day weekend, according to AAA. The national average topped out in 2008 at a record $4.11.

Kristin Nevels, a spokeswoman at the AAA office in Washington, where average prices are already over $4, said gasoline prices are reaching the point where they could have a significant impact on family summer travel — as they did in 2008.

Nevels said AAA is "hoping for the best" but is concerned that drivers across the region may be seeing that price by Memorial Day. "It is expected that we could see the $4 mark sooner rather than later," she said.

There was little optimism to be found Friday at Falls Road and Northern Parkway, where prices for regular have already soared above $4 a gallon — one of the highest prices found in the greater Baltimore region.

Wofford, of Dundalk, said she stopped at the Shell station there just to pump a few gallons into her PT Cruiser so she could pick up a paycheck.

"I do home health care and had to cut down on my patients," she said, because the cost of the gas to visit them at their homes is too high. Usually Wofford sees five to six patients, but now she's visiting only three to four, she said.

Thomas said that she and her boyfriend bought a Ford F150 truck last winter for his job as a painter, but they weren't thinking that gas prices would soar so high.

"At the time, back last winter, gas prices weren't that crazy," the Northeast Baltimore resident said, as she waited at the Exxon station at the same intersection. But the truck is their everyday vehicle, so she has made adjustments.

"You try not to go out as much," she said. "You definitely think twice about what you've got to do.

Thomas said she fills up whenever she spots gasoline at a low price, even if she's only at half a tank — but that can cost as much as $40 these days. "It's like gas is getting on your nerves," she said.

Several drivers at the Exxon station, where the price hit $4.03 Friday, said they are pumping just a few gallons at a time.

Terrie Shelton of Northeast Baltimore planned to pump just $10 into her Subaru Outback, "just enough so I can get up the hill" on her way to BJ's, where she planned to fill up her tank.

"Oh, my God — it's $4," she exclaimed.

Kate Dunn of Charles Village said she planned to pump only what she needed to get her Outback from North Baltimore to Annapolis and back. Dunn said she would consider carpooling but it isn't a viable option, given her work schedule. "Other than trading for a diesel vehicle, I don't know what to do," she said.

As motorists try to pump just enough to get to their next destination, many are miscalculating.

Nevels said the number of out-of-gas calls from Maryland drivers is up almost 37 percent over this time last year. Many of them, she said, were "trying to push to the last drop and not making it to the gas station."

"Our roadside service is very, very busy," she said.

The average price has reached $3.90 in the Washington suburbs, though Baltimore remains at the national and state average. The state's lowest prices are still found on the Eastern Shore, with the Salisbury average standing at $3.66

One place where the impact of higher gas prices could soon be felt is the Maryland Department of Transportation, which depends on gas tax revenues as a big contributor to the already ailing Transportation Trust Fund.

Erin Henson, spokeswoman for the department, said that if prices go much higher, "we could see more of a change in driving habits that could reduce the amount of fuel tax revenue coming in."

But Henson pointed out that the department offers options for people who want to cut their gas consumption, including spaces at park-and-ride lots for carpoolers.

"We've got lots of other ways that people are welcome to bring us revenue," she said.

And it appears that some drivers are doing so — by shifting their spending to transit fares.

Terry Owens, a spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration, said ridership on almost all of the agency's services had increased significantly in March.

Light rail had a whopping 23.4 percent increase over March 2010, Owens said. The Baltimore Metro was up 9.2 percent, local buses up 6.4 percent and commuter buses up 5.5 percent. Only the MARC system resisted the trend, with a meager 0.3 percent increase.

Gas price increases have largely been driven by a run-up in the price of crude oil, which has been affected by unrest in the Middle East, AAA said. Crude oil ended trading at more than $112 Thursday, up 2.4 percent for the week. Friday was a market holiday.

But Nevels said crude oil alone doesn't explain the current run-up. The spread between the cost of crude and the price of pump is greater this year than it was in 2008, she said, adding, "There really are no answers."

Some Maryland drivers are managing to shrug off the increases.

David Brinks of North Baltimore, who stopped at the Shell station to fill up an Acura MDX SUV, said he hadn't changed his driving habits at all. He said he usually drives a hybrid.

"I have no problem with things being priced their true value," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

liz.kay@baltsun.com

Maryland Average Prices

RegularMidPremiumDiesel

Current Avg.$3.854$3.995$4.119$4.134

Yesterday Avg.$3.855$3.996$4.121$4.132

Week Ago Avg. $3.799$3.943$4.061$4.111

Month Ago Avg. $3.558$3.709$3.831$3.919

Year Ago Avg. $2.841$3.021$3.097$3.067

Source: AAA Mid-Atlantic

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