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High gas prices reducing highway travel slightly

Although gasoline prices have fallen from their near-record highs in early May, big increases at the pump this year have forced many Americans to cut other spending and have pushed some out of their cars altogether.

Although gasoline prices have fallen from their near-record highs in early May, big increases at the pump this year have forced many Americans to cut other spending and have pushed some out of their cars altogether.

U.S. highway travel in March was down 1.4 percent compared with March 2010, marking the first time in 13 months that the number of miles driven declined year-to-year, the U.S. Transportation Department said.

As the Memorial Day weekend approaches, many people may find their holiday budgets cramped by fuel costs, according to a recent survey by AAA. Forty percent of travelers surveyed said rising gasoline prices would affect their travel plans, and median spending for Memorial Day vacations is expected to be down 14 percent from last year.

"Dining, shopping, museums, and gambling are taking a hit, while less costly activities like going to the beach, sightseeing, hiking, or visiting state or national parks are on the rise," said Jim Lardear, spokesman for AAA-MidAtlantic.

Last year, Lardear said, 12 cents of every dollar spent by consumers went to pay for fuel. This year, it's 17 cents, leaving less available for other spending.

The share of Americans who say gasoline prices will likely cause serious financial hardship for themselves or their families in the next six months now tops four in 10, according to a recent Associated Press-GfK poll.

Overall, 71 percent of respondents said gasoline prices would cause some pain, and 41 percent predicted that the hardship would be "serious." Just 29 percent said rising prices are not causing a negative effect on their finances.

By income, 63 percent of those with annual household incomes if more than $50,000 said rising prices had become a financial burden, up from 55 percent in March. Those with lower incomes already were more likely to feel strained in March, and more than three-fourths of them continue to report financial hardship.

The public's coping strategies are largely unchanged from March: 72 percent say they have cut back on other expenses, 66 percent say they have reduced their driving, and 48 percent say they have changed vacation plans.

Gasoline prices are about 80 cents higher now than they were in January, with the national average for a gallon of regular at $3.84 on Monday.

The average price Monday was $3.95 in Southeastern Pennsylvania and $3.77 in South Jersey. Those prices are about 8 cents lower than a week ago, but more than a dollar higher than a year ago.

The highest prices this year were reached May 5, when the average was $4.05 in Southeastern Pennsylvania and $3.88 in South Jersey.

Perhaps predictably, local transit agencies report an increase in riders, while auto travel on area toll roads has dropped.

SEPTA ridership was up 2 percent in April from the same month in 2010, with ridership on the agency's suburban division up 7 percent.

On the PATCO commuter rail line that links Philadelphia and South Jersey, ridership climbed 4 percent in March from a year earlier and was up 5 percent for the first four months of this year, compared with the same period in 2010.

Travel on the New Jersey Turnpike was down 1.6 percent in April after a 1.2 percent drop in March, compared with the same months in 2010, while trips on the Garden State Parkway declined nearly 1 percent in March and 2.8 percent in April.

"We definitely have seen a pretty big hit," said Turnpike Authority spokesman Tom Feeney.

Many of those who have disappeared from the toll roads are those without E-ZPass, Feeney said.

"We're getting fewer cash customers, who are more likely to be discretionary drivers," Feeney said. E-ZPass users are more likely to be commuters, with less flexibility to reduce travel, he said.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, traffic began to decline in March after rising for the previous nine months. April saw a 3.8 percent decline in traffic from the same month a year earlier.

"It is a concern," said Turnpike Commission spokesman Bill Capone. "We were feeling pretty good about the way things were trending, but we started seeing the effect in March."

Nationwide, highway travel for the first three months of this year was down 0.1 percent from the same period in 2010, according to the federal Transportation Department.

Relief may be on the way. Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at the Oil Price Information Service, expects prices at the pump to drop as much as 40 cents in the next four weeks because of reduced demand. The federal Energy Information Administration predicts a national average price of $3.76 a gallon by August and $3.55 by December.