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Fuel costs squeezing area truckers

February 23, 2000|By JULIE E. GREENE

What a difference a year makes.

Approximately $1 per gallon when it comes to diesel fuel.

cont. from front page

"A year ago we were paying 99 cents per gallon for fuel, and that was a good thing and everyone was happy," said Dan J. Spreng, president of the Hagerstown trucking firm Expedited Services Inc.

The high prices of the last two months are bad for everyone, Spreng said.

Expedited's 45 trucks travel across the nation, forcing the company to pay prices that reach $2.25 a gallon in Connecticut, Spreng said.

"While we have implemented fuel surcharges and passed it on to customers, we haven't been able to implement them fast enough or high enough to keep up with the escalating prices of diesel fuel at the pump," Spreng said.

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Diesel fuel rates have dropped slightly, and many trucking companies have added fuel surcharges, but several local trucking companies are absorbing the extra cost.

Truckers staged a protest in Washington on Tuesday, driving a convoy of trucks to the U.S. Capitol.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., wrote President Clinton seeking relief for oil users. According to Mikulski's office, she has asked Clinton to release oil from the nation's reserve and temporarily waive the federal transportation tax.

Diesel prices have declined in the last two weeks, with diesel fuel available at local truck stops for around $1.52 per gallon on Wednesday.

Even with the lower price the truckers were still complaining, truck stop managers said.

The price of diesel fuel has dropped because the demand for heating fuel is lower as a result of the recent mild weather, said Chris Kelley, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington.

While lower, diesel prices are still high.

"I've got a tin cup and I'm standing on the corner waiting for someone to drop some change," Turner Transportation Group Inc. Owner George Turner Sr. said.

In most cases customers are allowing the trucking firm to pass on the fuel costs through a 5 percent surcharge, but Turner said he has encountered some resistance.

Turner said the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other oil producing nations, who have reduced oil production during the last year, aren't the only ones to blame.

There are "pirates" and "opportunists" along the oil distribution chain taking advantage of the situation, he said.

Trucking companies aren't the only ones to suffer. Consumers could find themselves paying more for products hauled by trucks, Turner said.

Continuing high fuel prices could lead to inflation and higher interest rates, Turner said.

Joe Davies, a tractor-trailer driver for Bill Miller Trucking in Chambersburg, Pa., said his fuel cost was $1,925 on his last trip to California, compared to the $1,100 to $1,200 it had been costing.

Fuel cost an extra $13,000 last week for Bonded Carriers Corp., of Martinsburg, W.Va., said Vice President Andy Yost.

"We're trying to conserve as much as we possibly can," said Yost, whose drivers were told to reduce the length of time their trucks idle.

Prices are so erratic that truckers from the Northeast have driven to Baltimore to buy cheaper diesel while Maryland truckers have driven to Richmond, Va., for lower prices, said Walter Thompson, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association.

"I don't think there's any short-term solution unless the OPEC nations put a lot more product on the market," Thompson said.

In the meantime, it would be foolish for a trucking company not to tack on a fuel surcharge, Thompson said.

Some companies don't have a choice.

K.L. Grimm Jr. Trucking can't pass the extra fuel cost onto customers because the company has set contracts, said Office Manager Ginger Peck.

The Hagerstown firm, which uses approximately 16,000 gallons of diesel fuel a month, has seen local prices go from $1.07 per gallon last summer to $1.76 per gallon two weeks ago, Peck said.

"There's nothing really we can do about it. We're really at their mercy. We're just hoping the prices come down," Peck said.

Debbie Martin said her family's Waynesboro, Pa., trucking company has one truck to serve its regular customers, for whom they are "eating" the extra fuel cost.

Any new customers get the fuel surcharge, said Martin of Martin Freight Service.

For now her husband, Tom, fills the truck's tank with only enough fuel to get to the next delivery - keeping one eye on the road and the other looking for cheaper diesel rates.

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