Truckers threaten to raise rates over city ban Route curbs could hurt port, they warn.

March 13, 1992|By John H. Gormley Jr. | John H. Gormley Jr.,Staff Writer

Truckers banned by the city from their traditional cross-town routes say that unless they get relief from the new restrictions, they will have to raise their rates, a move that could drive some business away from the port of Baltimore.

The city imposed a "local truck zone" Feb. 17 in an effort to reduce truck traffic through Fells Point and Canton by getting the truckers to use the tunnels under the harbor instead.

But the truckers have strenuously objected to the rule because of the tunnel toll -- $4 for a five-axle truck. The truckers say they will have to pass that cost on to their customers, resulting in higher costs for many of the steamship lines using the port.

"We're trying to look for alternatives," said Francis M. Smith III, chairman of a group of truckers who specialize in cargo that moves through the port. "If this stays in effect, we are going to raise rates."

Steamship lines using the Maryland Port Administration's South Locust Point Marine Terminal would be among the hardest hit. They use local truckers to haul containers from the docks at Locust Point to the CSX and Conrail rail yards on the far side of the harbor. Much of that traffic now goes across town rather than through the tunnels.

Michael W. Miller, logistics manager for Baltimore-based Wilhelmsen Lines (USA) Ltd., said that if truck rates rise, steamship lines using South Locust Point "could be put at a considerable disadvantage."

Higher rates would prompt his company to try to reduce its costs by routing empty containers through other ports. Such an increase also would prompt Wilhelmsen to raise its charges to customers for moving loaded containers through Baltimore, which could drive those customers' cargo elsewhere.

The tenants of South Locust Point, the smallest of the state's three principal container terminals, are typically small to medium-sized lines. South Locust Point accounts for about an eighth of the 3.8 million tons of container traffic handled at MPA terminals.

Mr. Smith, president of Omni Service Transportation Ltd., a small trucking company, said the charge to the steamship line for moving a container across town is about $60. A trucking company such as his pays an owner-operator $35 or $40 to make the trip. The owner-operator then has to pay for the tolls out of that. If he can't get a load on the way back, that trucker ends up paying $8 in tolls out of the $35 or $40 he makes on the trip. "It's a lot of money. These guys can't afford it," Mr. Smith said.

The truckers are hoping a compromise can be reached, perhaps reducing the toll or permitting them to use the route during the day but banning them from it at night.

"We either have to raise the rates or get an absolute reduction at the toll facilities," said Gary P. Ringer, president of Ringer Enterprises Inc., which operates 15 trucks.

Truckers can buy books of tickets that provide a 33 percent discount on the toll, but the truckers think they should be entitled to a much deeper discount, perhaps 60 percent, the rate offered to drivers of passenger vehicles who purchase discount coupon books.

That proposal has gotten a cool reception from the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the state's toll roads and tunnels. John Agrow, executive secretary of the authority, said most states don't offer any discounts to truckers.

If the tolls are not changed, truckers will be left looking for someone who might intercede on their behalf to get the rules modified.

Raymond C. Feldman, a spokesman for the MPA, said the agency will try to assist the steamship lines and the truckers if the new rules are shown to be hurting the port.

"If it appears there is significant economic impact on truckers, steamship lines and the port, we would take our case to the city and let them know where are concerns are, to see if there's any room for compromise," he said.

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