High fuel prices breaking backbone of nation’s transportation system

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
CLEVELAND ó Dan Fleming has been an independent trucker for 28 years, in the process logging 4.75 million accident-free miles.
With the price of diesel fuel at record highs, times are as hard now, he said, as he’s ever seen.
“Oh, yeah, we cut corners,” Fleming said. “We’ve been cutting corners. I do without stuff.”
The days when Fleming bought all his meals from truck stop diners are long gone. Now, he packs as much food as he can carry when he leaves home and frequently eats in his truck’s cab.
Fleming, 55, is a Cleveland resident who makes hauls to the Pacific Northwest, transporting general commodities to and from. He frequently brings Washington state apples back to North Carolina for sale at Food Lion grocery stores.
Fleming drives a 1994 Mack diesel and pulls a 2003 Great Dane refrigerated trailer. His rig averages 5 or 6 miles to the gallon.
Fleming was leaving recently for a run to Salt Lake City, Utah, then heading north to the Pacific Northwest. He’s on the road, he said, an average of three-and-a-half weeks out of every month.
Fleming is, he said, like many other independent truckers, in a bind when it comes to covering his costs. He noted that the last time he made a cross-country trip, a couple of weeks ago, the cheapest diesel fuel he purchased was in Knoxville, Tenn., and cost $3.37 a gallon.
By the time Fleming returned home, that same gallon was selling for $3.49 in Knoxville.
The most expensive fuel he purchased on that last trip was in Washington state, where he paid $3.67 for a gallon.
“But I shop around for the cheapest prices,” Fleming said, noting that he saw diesel fuel selling in Washington for as much as $3.89 a gallon.
It’s likely to be even higher now as Fleming and his rig weave their way across the country. Oil prices reached record highs last week, topping out at more than $110 a barrel.
A year ago, it sold for about $64 a barrel, a price that at the time was considered high.
It generally doesn’t take long for those price hikes to be reflected at the pumps. Fleming said it’s not unusual for a fuel fill-up to cost him $800 or more.
He noted that as an independent trucker, he contracts with a broker for the commodities he picks up and delivers.
Fleming said the price of diesel fuel is $1.10 to $1.15 a gallon higher now than it was a year ago and 25 to 30 cents higher than just a month ago. He spends $1,000 to $1,200 more for fuel for a cross-country trip than he did a year ago.
Still, Fleming said the amount he’s paid by his broker hasn’t increased over that same time period. A pair of trips to the Northwest will cost him $2,500 more in fuel than they did a year ago.
“If I had a new truck and had to make payments, I’d probably already be out of business,” Fleming said. “You can’t do it anymore, not on what we’re making.”
But at his age, Fleming said he’s not sure what he can do to rectify the situation.
“I’ve got to do something,” he said. “I’ve got bills to pay. I’ve got to have money coming in. I can’t quit.”
Fleming’s lament is a common one among independent truckers, largely considered the nation’s backbone.
Industrial Workers of the World, a union that represents independent truckers, estimates that 10 percent of its members have parked their rigs rather than go in the hole continuing to drive.
Union leaders say spikes in the price of food and everything else transported by truck ó virtually everything ó are inevitable.
About 9 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million truck drivers are independent owner-operators, according to the Department of Labor.
Truckers, who felt unappreciated in the best of times, say they feel even more marginalized now.
Rene Coker, a neighbor of Fleming’s in Cleveland, drove for years and said the problems involving trucking have been coming on for years.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living,” she said of the plight of the independent trucker.
She warned that consumers are going to see a “marked increase” in prices at the grocery store and elsewhere as a result of the hike in diesel prices.
While independent truckers struggle, the large public trucking companies seem to be on a different road. Their stocks have, for the most part, climbed since January.
J.B. Hunt Transport Services and YRC Worldwide, with more than 10,000 trucks each, buy items like fuel and tractors in bulk. The big companies buy thousands of gallons of diesel fuel on the commodities market, then store it at their depots.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@salisburypost.com.

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