Protesting truckers clog N.J. Turnpike

April 1, 2008 1:20:26 PM PDT
Independent truckers around the country pulled their rigs off the road and others slowed to a crawl on major highways in a loosely organized protest of high fuel prices. 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 the New Jersey Turnpike, southbound rigs "as far as the eye can see" staged a short lunchtime protest by moving at about 20 mph near Newark - jamming traffic on one of the nation's most heavily traveled highways - said Turnpike Authority spokesman Joe Orlando.

New Jersey State Police said several drivers were issued tickets as troopers broke up the slowdown, and a similar effort on northbound lanes.

At a Turnpike rest area in North Jersey, about 200 truck drivers carried signs and protested high fuel prices.

"The gas prices are too high," said one of them, Lamont Newberne, a 34-year-old trucker from Wilmington, N.C. "We don't make enough money to pay our bills and take care of our family."

Newberne said a typical run carrying produce from Lakeland, Fla., to the Hunt's Point Market in The Bronx, N.Y., had cost $600 to $700 a year ago. It now runs him $1,000.

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.

Charles Rotenbarger, 49, a trucker from Columbus, Ohio, said he felt helpless.

"The oil company is the boss, what are we going to be able to do about it?" said Rotenbarger, 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 Jacksonville-area truck stop.

Teamsters union officials said they had nothing to do with any kind of protests. An independent truck drivers group, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said it also was not organizing anything; federal law prohibits the association from calling for a strike because it is a trade association.

Clayton Boyce, spokesman for the American Trucking Association, said diesel prices are the worst he's seen but said his organization does not support or condone the strike.

His group is pushing for a number of measures to keep the prices down or to otherwise help truckers, including allowing exploration of oil-rich areas of the U.S. that are now off limits and setting a 65 mph national speed limit.

In Washington, meanwhile, top executives of the five biggest U.S. oil companies said Tuesday they know high fuel prices are hurting consumers but deflected any blame and argued their profits - $123 billion last year - were in line with other industries.

Dan Little, a cattle hauler in Carrolton, Mo., said he stopped working Tuesday and would likely remain idle the rest of the week in support of fellow truckers striking in Georgia.

He said he's gotten around 50 phone calls and 100 e-mails from fellow Missouri truckers also stopping Tuesday. "We are trying desperately to send a message to Washington to open your eyes to the disaster going on in this industry," said Little, who wants Congress to suspend fuel taxes on diesel fuel for Class A trucks.

Rather than joining the protests, some truckers were forced to sit idle because of shippers' fears of a possible strike.

In western Michigan, independent trucker William Gentry had been scheduled to pick up a load and take it to Boston, but his dispatcher told him there was a change of plans.

"She told me that her shipper was shutting down," fearing that someone would sabotage deliveries if their drivers worked during the protest, Gentry said at the Tulip City Truck Stop outside Holland, Mich.

He and Bob Sizemore, 55, a 30-year veteran trucker, decided to return to their homes in Ohio, 280-mile trips that would cost each one about $200 of their own money for fuel alone.

"We can't ride around here looking for freight," said Gentry, 47, a driver for 23 years.

If something isn't done about fuel prices, the cost of consumer goods will shoot up, Gentry said. "People aren't seeing that the more we pay, the more they're going to pay."


Associated Press writers Tom Hester Jr., in Trenton, Geoff Mulvihill in Mount Laurel, Anthony McCartney in Tampa, Fla., James Prichard in Holland, Mich., Ron Word in Baldwin, Fla., and April Castro in Dallas contributed to this report.