- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

The truckers descending on Washington, D.C., yesterday warned that skyrocketing diesel-fuel costs threaten not only to drive up prices for the goods they deliver, but also to drive them out of business.

They also said that if prices don't come down soon, the overall economy, which depends on trucks to transport 90 percent of all goods, could slow down.

The entire trucking industry, from independents to long-haul trucking companies, are urging lawmakers to take action to bring down diesel-fuel costs, which have jumped more than 51 percent in the past 12 months.

"We are hoping to bring these cost down somehow, and if something doesn't happen soon, we will be back," warned Frank Lobiondo, an independent trucker from New Jersey.

Mr. Lobiondo was one of about 250 independent truckers who drove their rigs into downtown yesterday and then held a rally on the steps of the Capitol.

The truckers, mostly from the Northeast, echoed industry calls for President Clinton to release some of the 575 million barrels of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is stockpiled in case of a war or other national emergency.

The industry also wants a temporary suspension of the 24-cent federal fuel tax, and is asking for a federal program to give truckers a 15-cents-per-gallon rebate on diesel-fuel purchases.

While large trucking companies did not participate in the rally, industry leaders said they support independent truckers.

"In this new economy, you can point and click and buy just about anything over the Internet. But it's a truck that delivers the goods you have purchased," said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Association.

The truckers are concerned because fuel prices, from gasoline to home heating oil, have been rising steadily for nearly a year. Last March, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut crude-oil production by 7.5 percent to boost prices that had tumbled to 12-year lows.

While individual drivers are shouldering similar increases in gasoline prices at the pump, independent truckers say fuel prices are costing them as much as $100 per day. Some large trucks average just 5.5 miles per gallon and hold as much as 150 gallons of fuel.

"A lot of guys are going out of business and having trouble putting food on the table," said Tom Pokrywka, president of the National Owner-Operator Trucking Association, a 700-member organization that planned the rally.

The truckers hoped that Congress would hear their concerns, but many were disappointed that few lawmakers showed up at the rally. While the Senate was in session yesterday, the House of Representatives was not.

One senator, a former truck driver, did arrive to show support.

"When your industry comes to a standstill, this nation does, too," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said the Clinton administration sympathizes with the truckers, but that lowering the federal fuel tax is not likely to happen.

"The tax is set at what the Congress and the president believe is an appropriate level … so I don't think that is necessarily a viable option," Mr. Lockhart said.

Regarding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan last week said that stockpile is intended only for major crises.

At the same time, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is meeting with officials from oil-producing countries to pressure them to boost production, which would eventually bring fuel prices down.

Many energy analysts believe that OPEC, facing increasing pressure from the United States and other industrialized nations, will agree to raise production at its next meeting in March. But without a significant production increase, fuel prices won't likely drop significantly, analysts warn.

The rising costs have been felt most in the Northeast, where diesel prices now average about $1.86 per gallon, up from $1.07 a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association.

Diesel prices in New York and the District have climbed to as high as $2.04 per gallon, according to AAA. Motorists, meanwhile, are paying an average of $1.37 per gallon of unleaded gasoline.

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