- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003


Millions of Americans hit the road yesterday for the last getaway of the summer in what was expected to be the busiest Labor Day weekend in eight years.

AAA predicted 33.4 million Americans would travel at least 50 miles from home this weekend, the highest number since 1995. And 28.2 million, or 84 percent, were expected to travel by motor vehicle.

Drivers who hadn’t filled up their tanks lately were in for an unpleasant surprise: Gasoline prices have hit record highs in many parts of the country after the Northeast blackout shut down refineries and a pipeline broke in Arizona.

Earlier this week, the Lundberg Survey reported its biggest two-week jump ever — 15 cents per gallon — and a national average of nearly $1.75 per gallon, just short of the survey’s all-time high weighted average.

The prices left many drivers peeved but undeterred.

“At most, I may have to spend $10 or $15 more, but I’m not going to cancel a trip for $10,” said Michael Moses as he filled up at a New Orleans service station yesterday, his last task before departing for Pensacola, Fla., three hours away.

Travel was slightly off at the airports. AAA predicted 3.7 million tourists will fly, down from a year ago. Air Transport Association spokeswoman Diana Cronan said travel was down in May through July, and she also expects it to be off some over Labor Day.

“The economy, the hassle factor with security — many travelers are feeling the extra amount of time that is needed in the airports, and it just makes it easier on some of your shorter flights to drive,” Miss Cronan said.

At a gas station in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan., motorists waited in line for about an hour to pay just 97 cents a gallon in a radio station promotion.

Most people, though, had to pay full price.

“We thought we’d bite the bullet, but we sure didn’t like it,” said Jim Jackson of Fort Wayne, Ind., at a Massachusetts Turnpike rest stop west of Boston. He was a thousand miles into a nearly 2,000-mile end-of-summer journey with his wife and 3-year-old great-granddaughter, Hannahrose.

AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske said prices may have affected some plans, but cheap hotel deals made up for it.

“I don’t believe [gas prices] will affect anyone significantly,” Mr. Cheske said. “With the kind of traveling you’re talking about, a three-and-a-half day holiday, it really doesn’t add a huge amount to your expenses. Your top expenses are lodging and food.”

In California, nature offered its own reasons for travelers to stay home. Several beaches in San Luis Obispo County were to remain closed until at least Tuesday due to shark warnings. And in the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles, officials warned Labor Day weekend visitors to beware of black bears.

“Bears are on a hunt for lots of calories to get them through the winter,” said California Fish and Game spokeswoman Lorna Bernard.

Anne Waple of the National Weather Service said good weekend weather was expected over most of the country, except for storms along the Gulf Coast and scattered showers throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic.

Robbie Robinson of San Antonio flew to Nashville, Tenn., but rented a car for the final 115 miles of his trip to a 20-year high school reunion in Chattanooga, Tenn. The gas prices left him none too happy, though driving was still cheaper than a connecting flight.

“It’s price gouging, and the whole industry is guzzling money,” he said in Nashville.

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