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Fuel's cost has trucking firm's gauges on "E'

(ran PC edition)

Paying more than $2 a gallon for diesel in some states is forcing D & K Transport to sell most of its fleet and slash its work force.

The rising cost of fuel has claimed a big local victim.

One of the largest employers in town, D & K Transport, plans to slash its fleet and cut nearly 75 percent of its work force.

Co-owner Bill Surratt said Tuesday the trucking company, long a staple in Dade City's business community and at one time among the largest employers in Pasco County, has been hit hard by diesel fuel costs.

"We're paying $2.09 a gallon in California," Surratt said. "We're at a point where we can't take it anymore."

Of the company's 88 18-wheelers, Surratt said, owners plan to sell dozens of trailers and about 53 of the tractors at public auction next month.

The work force is expected to drop from about 200 to about 60, he said.

Long-haul trucking companies typically run on a tight profit margin because of competition, Surratt said. When the price of fuel rises dramatically, the competition makes it difficult to simply pass the increases on to customers, he said.

So truckers try to ride out the increase, surviving long enough for the swells to subside.

"We can't make it anymore," he said. "We hate to do this, but it's reached that point."

Surratt, who has been with the company for nearly 40 years, said he wishes there was something more the company could do. He said D & K will continue operating a smaller fleet as long as it can, and maybe expand again someday if fuel prices come back down.

The increases in the past 18 months have been steep, he said.

"In January of last year, we were paying 90-cents a gallon," Surratt said. "Now, we're up over $2 in California. That's too much. There are a lot of others out there like us."

And while commuters can usually take price increases in stride, driving a few miles a week and getting 20 or more miles per gallon, it's tougher on the trucking industry.

Surratt said his rigs get about 6 miles per gallon and the company runs about 14.5-million miles each year.

Unless the government steps in and controls the prices or coaxes more out of oil-producing countries, the trucking industry is due for a shake-up, he said.