- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Hundreds of truckers rolled into downtown Washington yesterday with horns blaring and gears grinding to urge lawmakers to take steps to lower skyrocketing fuel costs.

The 5-mile-long convoy of about 250 trucks, which traffic officials say caused "minimal" traffic delays along their way from New Jersey, slowly drove onto Constitution Avenue NW at 11:40 a.m. under a 24-member police escort. The truckers sounded their horns as they approached the U.S. Capitol and waved to crowds of people who lined the streets and overpasses along the way.

The independent truckers came from as far as Texas and Michigan to tell President Clinton and Congress that high fuel and maintenance costs are driving them out of business.

"We're not on welfare, but we live from day to day," said trucker Synina Dortch, holding her 7-month-old son as she stood with her husband, Quint, outside the Capitol yesterday afternoon.

"It's not easy when you can barely pay your bills and put food on the table," said the 23-year-old woman, adding that she and her husband drove from Texas to take part in the protest. "We're having to get by on advances on our loans just to survive."

"I support them all the way," said Spencer Howard of the District as the convoy of flatbeds, big rigs and tri-axles roared past. "They work so hard and earn so little. They deserve a break."

It took the truckers nearly 45 minutes to park their rigs near the Mall, where U.S. Park and D.C. police had reserved some room for them earlier in the day. The truckers were given permission to park along Madison Avenue between Third and 14th streets NW and along Maryland Avenue from Third Street to Independence Avenue SW, police said.

"There are always traffic problems in the District," D.C. police Sgt. Joe Gentile said. "But there were no major complications because of the convoy."

The protest ended by 2 p.m., when the truckers left the District over the 14th Street Bridge toward Virginia. Police said it took about 30 minutes for the convoy to leave the city.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican and former truck driver, greeted the men, women and children as they climbed the Capitol steps to deliver their message of frustration. Some carried signs that read "Will Work for Fuel," while others chanted "Enough is enough."

"I really feel sorry for them," Mr. Campbell said as he stood at the foot of the Capitol, shaking hands with the truckers and their families. "Some of them can't make a living. They're lucky if they make $25 a day. When you stop these trucks from rolling, the country will become paralyzed."

As they filled the lower west terrace of the Capitol, the truckers urged President Clinton to withdraw oil from government reserves to counter fuel costs that have soared 65 percent in the past six months.

They also asked lawmakers for a tax break, to create a federal rebate program that would give 15 cents off a gallon for truckers and to put a moratorium on the 24-cent federal fuel tax.

"It's difficult because you give up a lot with your family, and you begin to wonder if it's really worth the hardship," said John Anthony, a Perryville, Md., trucker who has two children. "You work harder to pay for fuel and take less money home to put food on the table."

Truckers are now paying more than $2 a gallon in some areas, almost double what they paid for fuel last year. Most trucks hold up to 300 gallons of fuel.

"At one time, I was proud of being a trucker," said Lloyd Moore, 55, of Beltsville, Md. Mr. Moore said that, after paying fuel and maintenance costs, he made only about $50 for a recent delivery to Lancaster, Pa.

Truckers also asked for an investigation into the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which cut crude oil production by 7.5 percent, or more than 2 million barrels a day, to boost oil prices that had fallen to 12-year lows.

Diesel 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 the U.S. Department of Energy.

On the way to Washington, the convoy caused few traffic delays throughout the area as it traveled at about 40 mph from southern New Jersey to the District via Interstate 95, police officials said. The truckers got help from 24 Maryland state troopers, D.C. and U.S. Capitol Police officers who escorted them down the interstate.

"If there were any disruptions, they were short-lived," said Peter Piringer, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police. "The convoy went fairly smoothly."

Some Washington-area motorists, however, were angered after two yellow State Highway Administration pickup trucks blocked eastbound traffic on the Capital Beltway at Exit 25 about 45 minutes before the convoy roared by and kept drivers from getting off there.

"I was trying to go to work," said David Foust, a U-Haul employee who lives in Takoma Park, Md. "But I'm not really mad. I hope it will bring the [gas] prices down."

"I'm very upset,"said Donna Lightly of Brooklyn, N.Y. "I have my son in the back. I'm trying to get to Florida."

The two yellow highway trucks took off about 11 a.m., after stopping traffic for about 30 minutes, even though the truck convoy had not yet come through.

Staff writer Barbara J. Saffir contributed to this report.

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