Pat Kiser is 68 and she has no plans to retire. But yesterday she quit her job as receptionist at the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce in Leesburg.
With gas prices soaring she no longer could bear the cost of that slower-than-ever, 66-mile round-trip commute from her home in Charles Town, W. Va.
"It's become terrible -- awful," she said. "With the traffic worsening out here I've also been using more gas. When I sit in traffic I can almost see the gas in my tank disappear before my eyes."
For some in the Washington region, the recent surge in fuel prices has been little more than an annoyance. A quick glance at the numbers on the pump -- What's it today? Oh, two-something a gallon for premium? -- and a shrug.
"It goes up, then it goes down for a minute, then it goes up again," said federal government auditor Philomena Brooks as she lunched at Ollie's Trolley in the District this week. "I don't even have time to get mad about it."
But for other workers, businesses and organizations, the spike in energy prices -- for gas, diesel fuel or heating oil, take your pick -- is changing the way they live, work and think about the future.
Kiser, for one, plans to take a lower-paying job, close to home, with the Jefferson County school system in Charles Town. "I won't make as much money," she said, "but I won't have to fill up my tank almost two times a week."
The price of crude oil, from which gasoline, diesel and heating oil are made, rose above $54 a barrel this week. Oil prices are rising as demand has increased around the world, particularly in China. At the same time, oil production is close to capacity. Oil traders have been bidding up prices because of concerns that factors such as pipeline attacks in Iraq and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico could lead to a shortage.
Gasoline prices in the Washington region jumped to an average of $1.98 for a gallon of regular unleaded yesterday, up from $1.84 a month earlier, according to a survey by AAA. Diesel fuel -- used to run trucks, construction equipment and other heavy machinery -- surged from $1.92 to $2.17 over the past month. And the Energy Department estimates that users of home heating oil, natural gas and propane will be paying markedly higher prices this winter. The average heating oil bill in the Northeast will rise 28 percent to $1,223, the government predicted.
Rising fuel prices are creating some unwelcome consequences, large and small, for drivers.
District cabdriver Wubshet Abeza, 42, said he's paying $25 to $30 a day for gas, roughly a quarter of what he makes in fares some days. So he's compensating by bringing his lunch from home rather than stopping at Subway or his favorite Ethiopian restaurant.
Tom Rust, owner of Loudoun Milk Transportation Inc. in Purcellville, said he may lose customers who balk at paying the fuel surcharges he's tacking on. But Rust, who operates 25 tractor-trailer trucks that consume 1,000 gallons of diesel a day, said he has no choice. "I paid $1.25 a gallon in 2001, and now it's $1.95 to $1.98," he said.
And gas prices are the reason District resident James Harvey, a records technician at the Justice Department, has stopped driving his eight-cylinder Lincoln to work.
When the price of premium topped $2 a gallon earlier this year, Harvey said he began taking a bus from his home in Southeast to the Potomac Avenue Metro, where he hops onto the Blue Line, then transfers to the Orange Line to get downtown.
"It used to take me about 20 minutes by car, but now my trip is close to an hour," Harvey said. "I just don't want to pay $50 to fill up the tank every week, and that's what it would take: $50." Harvey also has sworn off his twice-monthly trips to Atlantic City, where he gambles, and Dover, Del., where he visits the NASCAR track.
Cathy Repass, who delivers pizza for the Papa John's in Leesburg, has responded to the gas prices by working more hours.
"Last year, I pulled about 35 hours [per week]. This year it's 60 or 70," she said. "The gas prices go up, but I can't stop paying my bills."
Repass, 28, earns $5.15 an hour (the federal minimum wage) and a 5 percent cut of whatever she delivers (65 cents on a large pepperoni pizza), in addition to tips. "It's very hard right now," she said. "My Toyota 4Runner costs $35 to fill up. And I have to fill up every other day."
Not far from the Papa John's, Loudoun County schools assistant superintendent of support services Evan E. Mohler is trying to figure out how construction of the Ashburn-Dulles Middle School and Brambleton Area Elementary School may be affected by the spike in global oil prices.
The school system budget allows $30.1 million for the 168,000-square-foot middle school and $16 million for the 84,000-square-foot elementary school, he said. But the school system hadn't anticipated such a sharp spike in fuel costs, which, Mohler predicted, will drive construction costs up.
"Projecting out to next year, it is our belief that the total package will jump 20 percent," Mohler said. "You know, the tentacles on fuel go so far out. Everything in the construction world is tied to fuel.
"It may be that we would have to do some creative, value engineering, such as reducing the amount of tile in the hallways."
In the end, Mohler said, no one should be surprised by any of these developments.
"You know," he said, "we are still in a war."