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Freedom to move around rises as gas prices fall

The Baltimore Sun

The cost of gasoline hit Tammy Williams hard when she drove her pickup from Baltimore to New Hampshire last weekend to visit her son at Dartmouth College. She spent $450 filling the tank.

So she was relieved to find gas near her Northeast Baltimore home yesterday for less than $3 a gallon. At the Sunoco station on York Road and Cold Spring Lane, regular gas sold for $2.79.

"It's a help," said Williams, an employee at Chimes in the city, who hopes to make more trips to see her son, though she's cut out the trips she used to make to a cabin in West Virginia. "Gas is just too expensive."

Gas prices peaked at $4.05 on average in the Baltimore area on June 17. But falling crude oil prices have brought down prices at the pump over the past few months. On Friday, the average price of a gallon of gas fell below $3, to an average $2.97 per gallon, according to AAA's daily fuel gauge report.

By yesterday, prices declined even more. A gallon of regular gas averaged $2.91 in the Baltimore area, AAA reported. And for the first time in eight months yesterday, prices went below the $3 per gallon barrier both in Maryland and in the nation.

"Gasoline prices in Maryland are continuing their free-fall," Ragina C. Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said yesterday, adding that in Maryland, prices have fallen more than $1 per gallon since June 17. "AAA expects gas prices to fall faster and further in the days ahead, as the price of crude oil tumbles."

Oil is now down $75 a barrel - or 51 percent - since soaring to a record high of $147.27 on July 11. On Friday, light sweet crude for November delivery rose $2 to settle at $71.85 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the Associated Press reported. The drop, which comes amid economic turmoil that has slowed demand for energy, has prompted the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to schedule a meeting for Friday to consider an emergency production cut to keep prices from falling further.

For consumers, the drop in gas prices has come as a ray of light in an otherwise gloomy economy that has consumers worried about jobs, rising costs, stagnant home values and the security of their savings and investments.

"It's awesome and saves a lot of money," said Steve Castellanos, 24, an insurance estimator who said his job expenses have increased because he drives long distances. "It seems like you've got to ride out the bad to get to the good."

Alfred Washington, a 70-year-old great-grandfather from East Baltimore, said he works as a maintenance man for Villa Maria School in Baltimore because he can't afford to retire. He said he had cut out trips to Atlantic City, but lower gas prices might allow him to rethink the trips he once enjoyed.

"I'm glad it did [go down]," he said of the gas prices. "You can move around a little more freely."

For others, lower gas prices, still about 6 percent higher nationally than a year ago, come as little comfort.

"We've already lost all that money in the stock market," said Michael Hedrick, a plumber from Middle River who was filling the tank of his Dodge Dakota yesterday at a WaWa market on U.S. 40 in Rosedale.

Some motorists interviewed yesterday said they have already tightened their belts, combining or eliminating some driving, downgrading from premium to regular gas or paying closer attention to maintenance. And many said they're unlikely to change their new patterns in the face of price drops, especially because of uncertainty about prices and the shaky economy.

"I'm much more conscious of combining trips and errands," said Gretchen Ward, a nurse for Johns Hopkins Community Physicians at Greater Dundalk Medical Center. Ward had also stopped for gas at the Rosedale WaWa yesterday for a gallon of $2.79 gas. "I tend to drive less now. I think about whether I need to go somewhere."

Phil Petersam, a 35-year-old disc jockey from Edgemere, said he tries to increase his fuel efficiency by driving more highways than city streets and carefully planning his route. He said he'll continue that, regardless of whether prices keep falling, in hopes of saving on gas and the taxes that go along with it.

"The government gets enough of my money as it is," he said.

Gas station owners were glad to see the downward trend as well.

"As bad as it is for the public, it's worse for us," said Israel Negash, owner of the Sunoco at York Road and Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore. "We lose money when [prices] are higher," because of fees imposed by the credit card companies.

As of yesterday, the national average for regular gas was $2.99 per gallon, down 85 cents from a month ago and down 63 cents from the beginning of the month, AAA said. In Maryland, the average fell to $2.97, down 74 cents from a month ago and 56 cents since the beginning of the month, AAA reported.

"If the average price of fuel continues to remain below $3 per gallon, Americans may begin to drive a bit more as the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approach," Averella said.

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