Sales tax plan for fuel draws truckers' ire

January 07, 1991|By S.M. Khalid

If a proposed new 5 percent motor fuel tax is approved by the General Assembly, some disgruntled tractor-trailer drivers said yesterday they plan to keep on trucking -- driving their 18-wheelers non-stop past Maryland's costly gas and diesel pumps.

"I won't buy any fuel in Maryland if it goes up seven cents more," said Tim Hamilton of Winter Haven, Fla., who hauls produce up and down the East Coast in his 18-wheeler. "I'll fill up somewhere else, down South, where it's cheaper."

Mr. Hamilton said truck drivers would be hard hit by the proposed tax increase -- which at current prices would add about seven cents a gallon -- because they depend on lower fuel costs to make a profit bringing freight from farms in Florida to warehouses and supermarkets as far north as Maine.

"If it's a seven-cent increase, it's a big difference," added Mr. Hamilton, filling his rig with nearly 300 gallons of diesel fuel at the Truckers Inn truck stop at Jessup. "Do you know how much of a difference that will make? If I buy 100 gallons, that's $7 tax. That could feed me one day. I can fill up on cheaper fuel in Florida or Virginia. Why would I buy a more high-priced fuel, if it burns the same? I'd be crazy."

The state Department of Transportation is expected this week to recommend a 5 percent sales tax on motor fuels -- a levy that would be imposed at the pump, based on a total purchase price that already includes taxes of 18.5 cents a gallon.

The recommendation must be approved by the governor's Transportation Revenue Committee, before being submitted to the General Assembly. Transportation officials hope the proposed tax will raise as much $1.5 billion over the next five years, offsetting a state budget deficit while providing revenue for maintenance programs, new road construction, and bridge and transit projects.

Those concerns made little difference to motorists who watched gasoline prices soar during the first stages of the Persian Gulf crisis, and endured a recent nickel-a-gallon increase in the federal tax before prices began moderating last month.

"I think it stinks," said Delores Hebstreit, pumping gasoline into a van near her home in Glen Burnie. "The price of gas is raised enough already."

Keith Kimbrell, a trucker based in Springdale, Ark., says he plans to boycott Maryland's pumps.

"If they go up again, I'll stop either in Virginia or Kentucky," said Mr. Kimbrell, who hauls produce and meat for Polar Express. "That would get me through Maryland. I would just go right by and spit out the window. The companies tell us to find the cheapest fuel we can. If it's above average, I'll just get enough fuel to pass through the place."

Mr. Kimbrell said that rising fuel prices are a hot topic on his Citizens Band radio, with truckers exchanging information on the best bets for fuel prices along respective routes.

"Your fuel here is already high enough," said Mr. Kimbrell. "All they're going to be doing here is scaring off business."

That sentiment was echoed by others.

"It might help the state to do other things, but it's going to hurt the little guy -- the independent owner-operator," said trucker Paul Sears of Dover, Del., who works for a trucking company. "There'll be a lot who won't stop here. They're cutting the owner-operator's throats with higher gas prices, tolls."

Mr. Sears and other truckers said higher gas prices will cut into the profits for trucking companies large and small, forcing large companies to cut raises and benefits and causing smaller companies to go out of business.

"I don't buy fuel in Maryland anyway because it's already too high," said independent owner-operator Jim Morris, of Naples, Fla. "It's getting to the point where everyone is taking advantage of truckers. They'll keep doing it until they run enough of us out, as long as they can."

Several out-of-state motorists interviewed at filling stations yesterday from Columbia to Bel Air also said they would fill up elsewhere before traveling through Maryland.

"Gas is cheaper in New Jersey," said Flora Gregg of Burlington, N.J., who stopped to fill up at an Exxon station just off I-95 near Abingdon. "If the price goes up, I will not stop in Maryland. I'll fill up in New Jersey."

While the cries of indignation rose up around him, Derrell Johnson, an assistant manager at the Exxon station, said: "Everybody's got to buy gas. Let's face it. It's the price you pay for somebody else's problems."

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