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Truckers back to work after protest over fuel costs

Kevin Castle • Apr 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Truck drivers who parked their rigs Tuesday to protest high fuel prices were back on the nation’s roadways Wednesday, still pumping high-dollar diesel to haul goods from one shore to another.

Did their protest have any impact?

“It isn’t going to be effective. A few independents isn’t going to do any good,” said Leslie Gray, manager of Kingsport-based Don Gray Trucking Co., which took no part in Tuesday’s protest.

The loosely staged event by mainly independent truckers was designed to pressure President Bush into tapping the nation’s oil reserves to help stabilize fuel prices.

Diesel is nearing $4 a gallon in many parts of the country, and it’s topped more than $4 in some places. For many big rigs, it takes as much as $1,000 to fill up the tank.

And many truckers — particularly independent drivers — are struggling to survive.

Richard Venable, chief executive officer of NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership and owner of RSV Trucking in Kingsport, said his company is affiliated with LandStar, a $2.5 billion trucking business headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. RSV Trucking has driven for LandStar since 1989, giving the local company some insulation from the current pricing pressures facing other smaller, independent firms.

Still, Venable said the current market is all a “matter of rates.”

“The smaller guys are in a less competitive position, so they’re suffering considerably now,” Venable said.

He said larger companies can offset high fuel costs, at least partially, through fuel surcharges. But those charges don’t completely cover the higher fuel prices, which ultimately trickle down to consumers.

At Don Gray Trucking, Leslie Gray said her company has been in operation in Kingsport since 1985, and it’s experienced high diesel prices before — but never combined with such a severe downturn in the nation’s housing market. Don Gray Trucking is a flatbed carrier that hauls building products, and the nation’s mortgage meltdown has impacted its business.

“It’s a hard burden for us to bear,” Gray said. “The shippers are just going to have to learn that they’re going to have to pay more money in order to transport the goods. And that’s how we’re reacting to it.”

She said she’s hoping for some relief this spring and summer, saying the market for hauling building materials typically improves during the warmer months.

Venable said he attended a LandStar conference last weekend, where an economist predicted an economic turnaround in the trucking industry in the third quarter this year.

Venable said the trucking industry is always the first to feel a downturn and the first to experience the subsequent upturn.

“We feel like in the third quarter of 2008, it will start coming back. There will be more freight, and that should serve for a 3 to 4 percent increase in base rates over the next year,” he said.

That prediction doesn’t include relief from high fuel costs. Venable said he expects fuel prices to remain high as long as the U.S. dollar remains weak.

As for the trucking industry, Venable expects consolidation to continue.

“It’s kind of a bleak outlook,” he said. “In this industry, you have ups and downs, and you just try to pay the bills during times like this. That’s about it.”

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