Record gas prices hitting local trucking companies hard

·4 min read

Jun. 17—ANDERSON — As he prepared to fill his rig with nearly 160 gallons of fuel at Carter Express' corporate headquarters, Marcus Speikes was thankful for one thing.

"I'm happy it's the company (paying for fuel) and that it's not out of my pocket," Speikes said with a chuckle. "I couldn't afford to have my own truck and pay $900 or $1,000 every time I have to fill up."

Speikes estimates that's what it costs to cover the roughly 2,800-mile round trip from Anderson to Laredo, Texas, that he hauls freight on each week. A few months ago — roughly about the time Russia invaded Ukraine — Speikes said the trip required about $500 in fuel.

"It's basically doubled," he said.

As record high gas prices have jolted American motorists and sent shock waves through the economy, the trucking industry has felt pain at the pump more sharply than many other sectors.

"Everybody's impacted by it, but we're impacted by it first," said Gary Langston, president of the Indiana Motor Truck Association, a statewide advocacy group with more than 400 members. "Probably everything you have was on a truck at some point before you got it."

Langston said nationally, the trucking industry consumes about 45 billion gallons of fuel per year, and 80% of that is diesel, which hit a record high of $5.91 a gallon in Indiana this week, according to the American Automobile Club.

Local trucking and logistics companies have been feeling the pinch for several weeks. Carter Express is spending more than $750,000 a week on fuel for its fleet of about 800 trucks, according to president and CEO Jessica Warnke. That's up from about $550,000 a week in January, she said.

"We are in unprecedented times," Warnke said. "This puts a squeeze on us financially while we wait to be reimbursed with our fuel surcharge, and it is forcing us to keep an eye on our growing line of credit."

Warnke said that this week, the company raised fuel card purchase limits for its drivers by 20%, a move she said hadn't happened in more than a decade.

"We aren't sure that will even be enough for them to fill their tanks in one transaction," she said.

Warnke and others in the trucking industry are quick to point out that, while larger companies may be able to weather the added costs for a period of time, some smaller operations have been forced to idle their fleets, which they say is bad for the industry as a whole.

"If you're trying to run your own business, you're really struggling," Langston said. "There are a lot of those folks who either have reached that point or are getting close to that point where they say, 'I can't do this anymore.' It's really unfortunate."

When a continued shortage of drivers — Langston estimates a nationwide need for at least 80,000 — is added to the equation, the consequences will likely be far-reaching and long-lasting.

"(Hauling) capacity is already being removed from the market," he said, "and this just exacerbates an already difficult problem. If you take capacity out, prices could go up even more."

The repercussions, he added, could be virtually limitless. If the costs connected with getting goods from production to purchase points continue to skyrocket, prices will inevitably continue to rise.

"As this (crisis) ripples through the economy, it also affects business investments," Langston said. "If people are spending more on gas, they're probably spending less on other goods and services, and that can cause seasonal disruptions."

Warnke said that as fuel prices continue to rise, she suspects her company's customers may choose to curtail their loads at some point, which would further complicate matters. Where it might end, she added, is anyone's guess.

"I don't think there's a number on the pump that gets us there," she said. "I think there is a price that at some point the industry can no longer bear, and customers will have to make tough decisions, and that will directly affect us and our drivers and our employees."

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