Fueling the Pinch: Truckers struggle to solve diesel dilemma

Steve Tarter

Leo Reising, who's had his own trucking firm since 1962, said his business is no longer any fun.

"I changed my tune," said the owner of East Peoria-based Frate Service, an operation that runs 24 trucks throughout the Midwest and into the South.

"Trucking has always been a lot of fun, but it ain't no fun anymore," said Reising, 70.

What's taken the fun out of trucking is the skyrocketing cost of diesel fuel. Recent surveys show diesel as high as $4.65 a gallon.

"Five years ago, it cost $150 to $200 to fill up a truck. Now it's $1,100 to $1,200. That usually lasts about a day-and-a-half," Reising said.

The rapid escalation in fuel prices poses a problem for large operators, as well as small trucking firms.

It also threatens the average consumer.

"Everything travels by truck, so whether it's food, housing or transportation, prices will be affected. It's inflationary to say the least, and there's no end in sight," said Glenn Werry, owner of Star Transport in Morton, a company with 1,000 trucks.

A spokesman for AAA agrees the price of diesel fuel could have a trickle-down effect on the economy.

"It's really bad news for consumers. Diesel prices affect a wide variety of goods that are delivered by truck. Those transportation costs are passed on to the consumer," said Jim Rink with the AAA in Michigan.

The trucking business, though, remains active, Reising said.

"We are busy. We're turning money, but it's hard to make a dollar anymore. Along with the fuel, the cost of repairs and any parts that have to do with oil products have all gone up," he said.

"If I wasn't on solid ground (financially), I wouldn't be in business," Reising added.

The dramatic rise in the price of diesel fuel - up $2 a gallon in the past year - has forced a number of independent operators out of the trucking business, said Don Schaefer, spokesman for the Springfield-based Mid-West Trucking Association.

"The independent guys that can't make a go of it are signing up with larger outfits or they're getting out," Schaefer said.

Peorian Leroy Guy was an independent truck driver for 21 years -- until this year. "I've been thinking about (quitting) for years, but earlier this year, I sold my truck. I'm out," he said.

"With fuel going up so high, it's just not going to work. The money's not there anymore," said Guy, 46, who drove his semitrailer truck from coast to coast and into Mexico over the years. "I've seen some changes in this industry over the years and not for the better."

Schaefer said he recently was contacted by one of the association's members who had decided to close.

"After 52 years in the business, he laid off his drivers, with no plans to start (back) up. He cited fuel prices, along with this state's taxes and workmen's compensation costs," he said.

"Some operations are cutting back on fleet size. If they have seven or eight trucks, they're only licensing six because they can't afford to run them all," Schaefer said.

Even passing along the rising fuel costs with surcharges hasn't solved the problem, Reising said. "It's tough. We're billing $29,000 to $30,000 in surcharges. It takes me 30 to 45 days to get that money and I'm paying for fuel twice a week."

Recent and unrelenting increases in fuel prices outpace even the fastest invoice turnaround, Reising said. In the month of May, the cost of diesel fuel jumped 40 cents in a two-week period.

"There's no uniformity with the surcharges. For a dozen customers, we've got a dozen different surcharges. The federal government needs to step in and make it uniform," he said.

Look for firms to find ways to cut costs. East Peoria's Waugh Foods, a food distributor with 16 trucks, has turned to a computer-routing system that plots the most cost-efficient route for drivers with multiple stops.

"The system is supposed to save us 300 to 500 miles a day, which can add up to quite a bit of money," company President John Waugh said.

The high cost of fuel is likely to have another effect on truckers: Look for drivers to slow down, said Gary Prepejchal, owner of Centre State Truck Inc., 3313 SW Washington St.

Each mile per hour below 65 mph saves a truck 1.5 percent in fuel consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"The only thing you can do to save fuel nowadays is to slow the trucks down. It will be 60 miles per hour, not 75, on the highway," Prepejchal said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 or