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Relief at pump ahead for tristate drivers

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By SAMANTHA BOMKAMP | AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Drivers in the New York area may soon get relief from long lines and higher gas prices.

A week after Superstorm Sandy hit the area, the price of gas has increased 10 cents per gallon or more in the New York City area and in hard-hit parts of New Jersey. Images of long lines of cars and interviews with frustrated drivers have become staples in news coverage of the storm's aftermath.

But across the U.S. the price of gasoline is falling -- fast. It fell 7 cents this past week and has declined almost 9 percent in a month to $3.47 per gallon. The national average should be only slightly higher this Election Day than a year ago. That's due to a dramatic drop in the price of wholesale gasoline and low demand from a combination of cautious consumers and improving automotive fuel efficiency.

Wholesale gasoline futures fell about 12 percent in the last month and are down about 17 percent from a peak just before Hurricane Isaac made landfall in late August. Meanwhile, demand for gasoline has fallen for much of the year and oil prices have dropped recently.

On Monday, the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute said the average gas mileage of new vehicles sold in the U.S. reached its highest point ever in October. Fuel economy has now improved by 20 percent over the last five years and fuel consumption has fallen 17 percent, the institute said.

Prices should fall further in the coming weeks, according to Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service. Even people in the Northeast now standing or sitting in long lines for gas -- what he calls the "hysteria" in New York and New Jersey -- should catch a break. 

Kloza predicts that within a week, many commuters across the country will be paying less to fill up than at this point last year. The national average is currently about 6 cents higher than a year earlier. It had risen to $3.87 in mid-September as oil neared $100 per barrel and gasoline supplies ran short in California and the East Coast because of issues with refineries.

On Sunday, the Energy Department estimated that 27 percent of all gas stations across New York City, Long Island and New Jersey did not have gas to sell. That's down from 38 percent on Saturday. The situation improved as more stations regained electricity and extra supplies were brought in. State and local officials working with the U.S. Coast Guard started this weekend to off-load 28 million gallons of fuel from tankers -- about what the metro area burns on a typical day.

Phillips 66, however, said late Monday that its refinery in Linden, N.J., won't resume normal operations for up to three weeks. But it said that it has adequate supplies of fuel on hand and has taken steps to ensure fuel deliveries to its Linden terminal.

The Defense Department also set up mobile fuel stations around the New York metro area to distribute 12 million gallons of gasoline and 10 million gallons of diesel to run generators. The gas is free, and each person can take up to 10 gallons.

Those moves should begin to gradually lead the area back to normal. Then, Kloza said, New York area drivers will able to take advantage of the price relief those in the rest of the U.S. already see. For now, residents of Nassau Country on Long Island will pay about 14 cents more per gallon than a week ago while drivers in Bergen County in northeast New Jersey shell out about 13 cents more.  

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