- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

Carl King once drove a truck delivering produce, but these days he’s lucky if he can find day work landscaping, painting, cleaning or moving furniture.

Soaring gasoline prices are making it harder to get to those odd jobs, said Mr. King, 55, who lives in Northeast. Until recently, he borrowed his cousin’s car to get to work, but now he said he can’t afford to fill it up.

“I’m laying on E now, so I just get out there and catch that bus. … I’m out of luck if the bus doesn’t go where I need to,” Mr. King said from the office of Goodwill of Greater Washington, which operates a job-training employment-matching service.

The situation was made worse Friday when rumors began to circulate about a potential gas shortage. Lines formed at a few area gas stations, but they were at stations with the lowest prices. AAA reported being flooded with calls about potential shortages.

Gas prices in the D.C. area hit record highs last week. The average price of regular gas Friday was $2.89 a gallon in the region, with prices jumping higher over the weekend. The average price was $1.87 a year ago, AAA reported.

The prices are changing the habits of people across the region. Residents such as Mr. King complain the prices are hurting their ability to get to work; others say the high cost of gas is forcing them to change vacation plans, use public transportation more and run fewer errands.

Katie Jones, 24, a management analyst for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Southeast, dropped plans last week to drive to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for her final summer sojourn when she determined the trip would cost $200. She booked a flight instead, paying $120 for a round-trip ticket.

“It’s cheaper to fly. It takes two tanks [of gas to get] to Myrtle Beach and two tanks back. That’s money I don’t have,” said Miss Jones, who estimates it costs about $50 to fill up her Toyota Camry, roughly three times as much as it did a year ago.

The high prices are forcing Takoma Park resident Andrew Edelson to think more strategically when running errands. The federal government employee — in the midst of a big home-renovation project — said he is combining his weekend visits to Home Depot with trips to the grocery store.

“The thing I’m worried about is when winter comes. That’s when the heating oil will be affected. That’s going to affect not just people like me who are spoiled and complain when they go to the pump, it’s going to affect everyone,” said Mr. Edelson, 30.

The impact of the high prices is felt across economic boundaries, although economists say people who have limited disposable income tend to be hurt the most.

Also, wealthier people are often able to afford to live closer to work, reducing their commutes, said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group Inc., a Baltimore economic consulting firm.

Mr. Edelson, who said it now costs about $50 to fill up his Dodge Neon, is considering using Metrorail to get to work, but for some residents, that isn’t an option.

The train service doesn’t extend to Southern Maryland, where Miss Jones lives. No matter how high prices climb, she has to drive, she said.

“It’s not like I have any other choice,” Miss Jones said.

David Guernsey, president of a 181-employee office-products company in Chantilly, said gas prices hurt small-business owners, too.

Guernsey Office Products puts about 100 vehicles on the road each weekday, including delivery trucks and sales representatives, that drive 3.4 million miles a year. The company had expected to spend $500,000 this year on fuel, but if high prices persist, the actual amount is anyone’s guess, Mr. Guernsey said.

“Financially it affects me because I own the company. There’s a bottom-line impact to all of this. Right now, we’re just swallowing a bigger expense, but I guess there’s a point at which you start changing habits,” he said.

The high prices will send ripples through the economy if they persist, Mr. Basu said.

For example, if people feel it is too expensive to drive to the local multiplex to see a movie, they may be more likely to sign up for Netflix, a service that allows consumers to rent DVDs through the mail, he said.

Other economists predict online shopping will become more popular if gas prices remain at record levels during the holidays.

High gas prices also could spark a surge in telecommuting, Mr. Basu said. If employers are unable to raise wages to help their workers pay for higher commuting costs, they may be willing to allow the employee to work from home once or twice a week, Mr. Basu said.

“People are going to be creative,” he said.

So far, scenarios such as these haven’t played out.

A Netflix spokesman said subscription levels have increased this year, but there’s no way to know if that’s because people are more reluctant to drive to see a movie.

A spokesman for Commuter Connections, a D.C.-area program that coordinates ride sharing, said it has seen an increase in participants since summer began, but there is no way to know if more people are enrolling because of the high cost of gas.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has not released figures for Metrorail ridership in August. “It is likely we have seen an increase in ridership, but there’s no way to determine if that’s because of gas prices,” said Lisa Farbstein, a WMATA spokeswoman.

Ridership on Metro in August tends to be erratic because of the number of tourists who descend upon the District in the summer months and the number of regular riders who are on vacation, Ms. Farbstein said.

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