- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Area commuters should brace for a traffic nightmare this morning when as many as 500 tractor-trailers are expected to roll into the city to rally against skyrocketing diesel fuel prices and highway toll costs.

The 4-mile-long convoy, which will leave New Jersey at 7 a.m. and pick up followers as it travels down Interstate 95 and snakes along the inner loop of the Beltway to Route 50, is expected to reach the District of Columbia at New York Avenue NE about 10 a.m.

Once in the District, police will escort the truckers down New York Avenue onto Third Street NW. The rigs will park on Third, Fourth and Seventh streets NW between Pennsylvania and Independence avenues, and along Maryland Avenue from Third Street to Independence Avenue SW.

The drivers, all independent operators, say they will climb the steps of the Capitol at 11 a.m. to urge President Clinton to withdraw oil from government reserves to counter soaring fuel costs more than 50 percent in six weeks that they say are making it almost impossible for them to earn a living.

"This is a convoy crying for help," said Charles Hentz, with the New Jersey-based National Owner Operator Trucking Association, a nonunion group organizing the protest. "If we don't get our government to roll back fuel prices, then the country's trucking industry is going to come to a halt."

What also may come to a halt is the area's morning rush hour, which will undoubtedly run into the convoy as it makes its way through city streets to park the rigs in time for the rally.

The convoy will include tractor-trailers, flatbeds, aggregate haulers and tri-axles, each weighing more than 70,000 pounds, Mr. Hentz said.

Metropolitan Police Sgt. Joe Gentile said yesterday that police may have to close Third and Fourth streets NW and Maryland Avenue SW when the truckers arrive to give them more room to park their rigs.

"We'll just have to wait and see what's going to happen, and then we'll determine if we need to close down those streets," Sgt. Gentile said.

U.S. Capitol Police said yesterday that the truckers have obtained a permit that will allow them to rally at the Capitol steps from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The convoy will form at 7 this morning in southern New Jersey and travel through Delaware into Maryland, where they expect to pick up more truckers at Jessup's truck stop, the Chesapeake House rest area, the Maryland House rest area and on Interstate 95.

From the Maryland House rest area, Maryland State Police troopers and officers from Metropolitan and Capitol Police forces will escort the truckers through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, through Prince George's County and then onto westbound Route 50 to the District line.

"We don't expect any problems, but we planned for any mishaps that might occur," said Peter Piringer, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police. "We want to ensure that traffic will be disrupted as little as possible. It'll be similar to that of a funeral procession."

Sgt. Gentile said Capitol Police will escort two or three truckers to the Capitol, where those truckers will park their rigs. The rest will have to park on the designated streets.

The protest will be on the Capitol's lower-west terrace until 2 this afternoon, then the convoy will leave the city via the 14th Street bridge into Virginia.

Organizers said they are coming to Washington to ask politicians for help in lowering the skyrocketing fuel and toll costs that have financially drained most of the independent truckers who work along the Northeast corridor.

Diesel prices in the central Atlantic and New England regions have risen 43 percent and 55 percent, respectively, in the past six weeks, according to the American Trucking Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based freight-hauler trade group.

The association will not participate in today's rally, said Tom Amontree, the group's vice president of communications.

The prices have increased because of low stocks leading into January, followed by a bout of severe cold weather that increased customer demand and hindered the flow of products to the Northeast, according to officials with the U.S. Department of Energy.

What used to be $1 a gallon about a year ago is now more than $2 a gallon in some cases, organizers said. The tolls have also doubled in some places.

Drivers say the increasing costs are forcing them off the road.

For example, truckers who in the past spent $12,000 a year on tolls, could spend $20,000 this year, and those who spent $24,000 a year on gas, now could spend as much as $40,000 this year, organizers said.

"It's cheaper to park a truck than to drive it," said Douglas Sorantino, a truck-company owner who was on his way to Washington yesterday afternoon.

"We're coming to Washington because we want to be seen and heard by the politicians that we are hurting," added Mr. Sorantino, who lives in Fairton, N.J.

Mr. Sorantino said he is now spending an additional $16,000 a month to operate his eight trucks. "I'm lucky if I make $20 net profit a day," he said. "We're not looking for handouts. We're looking for help."

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