Only a month ago, Don E. Wilson would have balked at paying $2.98 a gallon for gasoline.
But he practically screeched to a halt when he spotted that price on the billboard of a Shell station in Manassas.
"It was like 'Oh, wow! Gas for under $3!' " said Wilson, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, as he topped off the tank of his Prius yesterday. "It was so exciting. . . . It's all relative, I guess."
In isolated pockets of the Washington region, gasoline prices dipped below $3 a gallon this week for the first time since they crossed that barrier after Hurricane Katrina hit. The storm reduced the flow of the Gulf Coast region's pipelines and refineries, crippling supplies and causing spikes in gas prices nationwide.
Finding gas under $3 a gallon in the D.C. area is still difficult. While prices fell below an average $3 a gallon this weekend in 30 states, the price in the District remained among the highest in the nation, averaging $3.35 on Sunday night, up one cent from Friday morning, according to the latest numbers from the AAA. Maryland and Virginia fared better, though prices remained well above the $3 mark. In Maryland, prices dropped to $3.19 from $3.23 and in Virginia they dropped to $3.02 from $3.09, AAA said.
The Energy Department yesterday reported that the average national price dropped to nearly $2.96 a gallon, more than 11 cents lower than a week earlier.
For those who have tracked down gas under $3 a gallon in the area, the reaction has ranged from restrained optimism to outright glee. Suddenly, prices that once sent consumers clamoring for government investigations now seem acceptable, and even reasonable, to motorists reeling from the sticker shock of just a week earlier.
Erik Gordon, a marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University, compared the reaction to the old joke about the college kid who tells his father he got arrested for selling drugs. Then just about the time the dad is about to hit the floor, his son says: "Just kidding. Can I borrow $100?"
The gas price hike, and the ensuing drops, have had the same effect on the consumer psyche. "The under-$3 price is much more acceptable to us because we were scared to death about the higher price going even higher," Gordon said.
Motorists could be in for further declines in pump prices because the price of crude oil and the wholesale price of gasoline have been dropping, analysts said. Those prices are now lower than they were before Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. benchmark crude oil for October delivery closed on the New York Mercantile Exchange at $63.34 a barrel, down 74 cents.
Prices are creeping down partly because a group of industrialized countries opened emergency oil and gasoline reserves to add supply and moderate prices, which analysts said is having its desired affect. Also, some of the damage caused by the hurricane to oil and gasoline supplies has been repaired.
They are also dropping because of the blend of gasoline now on the market. In parts of the country, including most of the Washington area, the government requires a special blend of less-polluting but more expensive gasoline to be used during the summer months, said Douglas N. MacIntyre, a senior oil market analyst at the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.
Normally, these areas are allowed to sell a less expensive winter grade gasoline starting Sept. 15. But after Katrina, the government allowed some areas to use winter-grade gasoline earlier.
"But we're not back to normal," said Ronald J. Planting, an economist at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group. "We still have four major refineries that are not operating, and that's still putting a big crimp in the supply."
Kassandra Bremont, the comptroller of a group that owns 17 gas stations in Maryland, feels that crimp. Some of her stations still are not getting the gas deliveries they expected. And as long as supply is scarce, those stations will try to ward off sales by keeping prices high.
But at least one of her stations, in Easton, is poised to begin selling gas at $2.99 per gallon, Bremont said yesterday afternoon.
So why aren't prices dropping all over along with the price of crude oil and the price of wholesale gas?
"Greed," conceded Bremont. "Should we give a penny back or can we put it back in our pocket for just a little longer? For the prices to go down, there has to be a competitive reason for it."
But Peggy Trant is pleased at least some stations are giving a penny back. At a Sunoco in Manassas, where regular gas is now selling at $2.95, she filled up the tank of her Hyundai.
"I never thought it would come down below $3 again," said Trant. "I thought they (the oil companies) would see that people are paying more than $3 and stick with it."
Staff writer Justin Blum contributed to this report.