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Relief at the pump is bittersweet

Carolyn Jones is spending a lot less these days for gas, so she has a little more for groceries.

"I just got butter the other night," she said Wednesday, as she fueled her Lumina in Durham for a bargain price of $1.869 a gallon. "I've been buying just a few things at a time."

The Triangle average for regular gas reached $2.037 a gallon Wednesday, after falling almost every day since mid-September, when it hit a record high of $4.058. The stunning, sustained price drop is about the only bright side of a relentless slowdown in the world economy.

"The difference between $2 gas and $4 gas is about $100 billion for consumers on an annual basis, so it's a major stimulus for the economy," said economist Michael Walden of N.C. State University. "It puts money in people's pockets.

"But on the negative side, the reason gas prices are down is that the economy is so bad," he added.

Jones, 61, depends on Social Security and a small check from part-time work in a school cafeteria. She worries how she'll go without wages through the school break at Christmas.

So she was cheered Wednesday to discover that it took only $25 to fill her tank.

"This will make a big difference," she said. "I'm thinking now I can go back and buy some bread."

Americans have been driving less and riding the bus more since the fall of 2007, when gas prices started moving up to $3 and $4. This fall, the slowing economy is keeping us cautious. The Federal Highway Administration said Wednesday that Americans logged 10.7 billion fewer miles in September than during the same month last year.

"We're not seeing consumers either drive more or spend more with the falling gas prices," said Carol Gifford, spokeswoman for Charlotte-based AAA Carolinas. "That's based on a lack of confidence that low gas prices are here to stay, and a lack of confidence in any part of the economy."

Like a lot of taxi drivers, Isaiah Samoita of Raleigh is responsible for his gas expenses. He was happy to pay $1.899 a gallon Wednesday to fill his Circle Taxi cab.

"That's my profit," Samoita said.

High gas prices in the past year added between $5,000 and $7,000 to the cost of doing business for John O'Connor of Raleigh, 40, a building contractor. "Now I can start making money again," O'Connor said Wednesday as he filled his pickup. "Of course, the bad part is that now the economy is in the pits -- and we can't get a job."

Retaining bus riders

John Tallmadge, commuter resources director for Triangle Transit, said bus rider counts rise when gas prices do -- but they don't drop as far when prices fall. Some new riders decide to stick with the bus even when cars become less expensive to drive.

But bus ridership could start to decline for other reasons, he said.

"Back in 2001 when the tech bubble burst and tens of thousands of jobs were lost in the Triangle, our ridership slumped," Tallmadge said.

In the spring, some economists were predicting gas prices of $6 or $7 by the end of summer. Now, there are cautious predictions that prices could fall a bit lower.

Gas prices are expected to stabilize soon, Gifford said. "The price of oil will not fall below $50 a barrel, and it was trading today at $55."

Walden said gas prices are likely to stay low "as long as the recession is with us." That is likely to mean at least through the first half of 2009.

And when the economy rebounds, gas will get expensive again. "In the long run, the world economy will likely grow faster than the ability of producers to find and bring petroleum to the market," Walden said.

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