Truck convoy to protest fuel cost rumbles to D.C.

Five-mile caravan snakes down I-95 from Delaware line

February 23, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Motorists on Interstate 95 were subjected to a parade of 18-wheelers and semis yesterday morning as hundreds of truckers protesting high fuel prices snaked their way south toward Washington.

The convoy slowed traffic slightly as the five-mile caravan of flatbeds and rigs traveled from the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the nation's capital. The group -- composed mostly of independent truckers -- were protesting diesel fuel prices that have soared to more than $2 a gallon in some states.

"The price of fuel has really brought everything to a head," said trucker Jim Bacon of Maine as he waited to join the protest at the Truck Stops of America center near Jessup. "If they don't do something about it, the country's going to find out what it's like to have 200,000 truckers on vacation for two weeks. You won't be able to buy a roll of toilet paper or a package of hamburger."

Despite concerns over possible gridlock, Maryland and District of Columbia police who provided escorts to the group reported no major traffic problems as the estimated 200 to 300 trucks made their way to a planned rally at the National Mall in Washington. Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said that while there were some reports of bottlenecks as trucks waited to merge into the caravan, the convoy was orderly.

"There were a couple of slow spots, but mostly it went well," Piringer said. "Our mission was to make sure that they traveled safely and that we kept all lanes open, and we accomplished that."

Highway traffic was further affected yesterday morning when an 18-wheel tanker-truck hauling sulfuric acid collided with a passenger car halfway across the Key Bridge about 8: 30 a.m., killing Lisa M. Zepp, 26, of Baltimore. The accident caused a one-mile backup just after the crash.

The driver of the truck, Danny Clark, 62, of Carroll County, was not part of the protest convoy, and police said he was not injured.

The rolling rally of truckers pulled away from the Maryland-Delaware line shortly after 8 a.m. to avoid rush-hour traffic. Protesters said fuel prices, combined with a lack of rate increases for hauling and increased costs to maintain trucks, motivated them to organize the rolling rally.

"The fuel prices are only one of the problems," Michigan trucker Kevin Miller said as he collected names of drivers waiting to join the convoy. "In the last 25 years, the cost of doing business has increased from 300 [percent] to 400 percent, but the rates they pay us for hauling have not increased."

That disparity is what persuaded trucker Dwight Jones to forfeit a day of pay to participate in the protest. Jones, who lives in Laurel, is the father of three teen-agers and said he has been relying on savings to make ends meet.

"I love this job because I get to see the country and meet people," said Jones, who began hauling again two years ago after a decade-long absence. "But things have been really tight."

According to the American Trucking Association, a national trucking trade group based in Alexandria, Va., that has about 3,000 members, diesel prices have increased 33 percent over the past six weeks in the mid-Atlantic region and 41 percent in the New England area. Bob Costello, chief economist for the association, said that before the fuel crisis, companies were operating on a 2 percent to 4 percent profit margin.

"That profit has been wiped out, and they are essentially losing money on a haul," said Costello, whose organization did not endorse yesterday's protest. "If we get to the point where they essentially have to park their trucks, it's going to have a big effect on the consumer."

David Higdon of Baltimore waited for the caravan at a truck stop in the shadow of the Maryland Wholesale Food Center in Howard County near Jessup. Passing trucks blared horns in solidarity as one trucker held a sign reading: "Almost Homeless, Please Help."

"You just pray to God that nothing goes wrong with your truck," said Higdon, who has been hauling for eight years. "Parts have gone up, repairs have gone up and fuel has gone up, but our salaries have not."

Lloyd Moore of Beltsville hauls steel and said it is sometimes hardly worth it to crawl into the cab of his flatbed.

"I recently got paid $201 to haul 40,000 pounds of steel," said Moore, who has been a trucker for 30 years. "I stopped at the pump and paid $125 for around 80 gallons of fuel and I hadn't even left Baltimore yet."

With their rigs parked along the Mall between the Capitol and the White House, the truckers gathered for a midday rally on the Capitol West front -- where presidential inaugurations are held -- and listened to Charles L. Hentz and other leaders outline their demands.

At the top of the list was "immediate relief," said Hentz, who organized the event and is owner of a New Jersey trucking firm.

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