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    Gas Prices Drop Sharply

    Sheetz one of several chains to drop prices below $1.

    NEW YORK

    Gasoline prices yesterday fell below $1 a gallon at some U.S. convenience stores despite heavy air strikes on Afghanistan and the risk of a disruption of oil exports from the Middle East.

    Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc., operator of more than 230 convenience stores, was selling regular unleaded in Reading, Penn. for 95 cents a gallon, one of a number of stations in the United States that have dropped below $1 a gallon, Reuters reported.

    Convenience stores in Georgia and Ohio on Monday neared $1 and may hit that mark later this week at self-service regular pumps, an informal survey found. The slide in pump prices is attributed to a decline in demand for fuel since the attacks that has allowed once razor-thin supplies to grow back to normal levels, energy experts said.

    "People are less likely to take trips in times like this, and it's taking a toll on demand," said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for the American Automobile Association (AAA). "This has helped rebuild national inventories."

    The national average price has fallen 22 cents a gallon since the Sept. 11 hijackings to just under $1.31 a gallon -- the lowest since the week of Jan. 17, 2000, the U.S. Energy Department said.

    The West Coast continued to have the most expensive gasoline in the nation, with prices in the region falling 3.3 cents a gallon to $1.54. Motorists in the lower Atlantic states again had the cheapest fuel. Prices in that region were down 4.1 cents to $1.20 a gallon.

    Thus far, none of the military strikes has significantly disrupted supply lines from the oil-rich Middle East to the United States, by far the world's largest oil and gasoline market. The pump price decline contrasts with the pockets of price gouging on Sept. 11 that saw some stations charging $5 or more a gallon, the report said.

    Analysts say a weak economy and fears of recession are expected to continue to cut into discretionary consumer spending, including travel, despite some indications of life returning to normal.

    "The first week after the attack, business just died. Now, it's back to normal," said Larry Woody of Woody's BP-Amoco in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I think most people are just getting on with their lives. Current national average fuel costs are still far from the $1-per-gallon breached in some cities. The last time gasoline was below $1 at the national level was during the week of March 15, 1999.

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