High Fuel Prices Drive Truckers To Protest

Ignacio Vergara, 43, of Tampa, Fla., sits in the shade near his parked truck Tuesday morning, April 1, 2008, near the Port of Tampa, Fla. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association says many of its members believe diesel prices at more than $4 a gallon is making it difficult for them to stay in business.
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
As top oil executives were trying to deflect lawmakers' criticism about their record profits in comparison to sky-high prices at the pump Tuesday, independent truckers across the country slowed to a crawl or pulled their rigs off the road to protest fuel costs.

Some truckers, on CB radios and trucking Web sites, had called for a strike Tuesday to protest the high cost of diesel fuel, saying the action might pressure President Bush to stabilize prices by using the nation's oil reserves. But the protests were scattered because major trucking companies were not on board and there did not appear to be any central coordination.

On New Jersey's Turnpike, southbound rigs "as far as the eye can see" were moving at about 20 mph near Newark, said Turnpike Authority spokesman Joe Orlando. Other truckers had gathered at a service area near Newark chanting and protesting.

Outside Chicago, three truck drivers were ticketed for impeding traffic on Interstate 55, driving three abreast at low speeds, said Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Luis Gutierrez.

Near Florida's Port of Tampa, more than 50 tractor-trailer rigs sat idle as their drivers demanded that contractors pay them more to cover their fuel and other costs.

"We can no longer haul their stuff for what they're paying," said David Santiago, 35, a trucker for the past 17 years.

Santiago, like many of the more than 50 truckers gathered on a side street near the Port of Tampa, said he can't support his family on what he makes. "If it wasn't for my wife, we would have been bankrupt already," he said.

Some other truckers, however, didn't join the protests, saying they doubted a strike or mass demonstration would be effective because trucking companies are not on board and there is no central coordination.

"The oil company is the boss, what are we going to be able to do about it?" said Charles Rotenbarger, 49, a trucker from Columbus, Ohio, who was at a truck stop at Baldwin, Fla., about 20 miles west of Jacksonville. "The whole world economy is going to be controlled by the oil companies. There's nothing we can do about it."

Jimmy Lowry, 51, of St. Petersburg, Fla., and others said it costs about $1 a mile to drive one of the big rigs, although some companies are offering as little as 87 cents a mile. Diesel cost $4.03 a gallon at the Baldwin truck stop.

Gas prices may be sitting near record levels, but the owners of local gas stations are struggling.

Profit margins on gasoline sales are razor thin. Indeed, some gas stations are losing money on credit card sales, once the fees are factored in.

How do they stay in business? More and more a gas station's bread and butter is, well, bread and butter - and the coffee and candy bars it sells in its convenience store. Most of these items generate much higher profits than gas.

"Gasoline is a relatively low margin part of what we do," said Jay Ricker, president of Ricker Oil Co. in Anderson, Ind.

Increasingly, a station owner's biggest challenge is convincing drivers to step inside the store after they gas up.

"It's all about trying to sell other things," said Scott Hartman, president and chief executive of Rutter's Farm Stores, a York, Pa., company that owns and operates 51 gas stations.