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Steve Smith is ready to get off the roller coaster.

The Columbus-based trucker would like to see fuel prices settle down to a reasonable - and steady - rate.

"It's only been four months since we were paying over $4 for diesel," he said. "If things would just level out, then freight rates would fall into place."

In the past few months, as oil plummeted from nearly $150 a barrel to less than $40, the price at the pump took a similar nosedive. Drivers smile as they gas up at $1.33 per gallon - the lowest prices since January 2004 - but truckers, whose livelihood is dependent on diesel, are still shaking their heads. From a high in the $4.70 range last July to roughly half that at the end of December, the market is charting new territory.

How has the trucking industry adjusted, and what does that mean for the rest of us?

By most accounts, delivery surcharges are easing. But that doesn't necessarily mean the cost of goods has followed suit.

Rod Bastian, manager at Beartooth IGA in Red Lodge, said some surcharge fees leapt as high as $40 during the heyday of high fuel prices. Now that diesel has dropped substantially, he has noticed some surcharges sliding as well. But a few of his key distributors have yet to adjust their surcharges accordingly. And it makes him suspicious.

"We're approaching a five-year low in fuel costs, but the suppliers are not as willing to remove fuel surcharges as to put them on," he said. "The reasons for doing it have disappeared, and yet the fee is still there."

Even if the surcharges evaporated, Bastian said his customers are unlikely to notice any difference.

"We never passed it forward," he said. "We just absorbed it."

Likewise, Bob Hanson, manager at ACE Hardware in the Billings Heights, said the business has been eating most of the added costs. That's why he's especially happy to see surcharge fees down substantially - 66 percent, he figures.

That figure seems to substantiate what one Billings trucking company reports.

Mike Wilson, co-owner and president of Whitewood Transportation, figures that Whitewood has reduced its surcharge fees by 70 percent. It's something that is calculated on a weekly basis, he said.

"And in real volatile times, we've had to adjust two or three times a week," he said.

That seems to be the general rule of thumb for larger trucking firms like UPS and FedEx Ground. Surcharge rates for both companies, posted on their respective Web sites, rise and fall commensurate with fuel prices. At $4.70 per gallon, UPS charged a surcharge fee of 10.25 percent. Through Jan. 4, 2008, the rate had dropped to 6.75 percent and effective Jan. 5, it will fall to 4.75 percent.

But Rob Emmons, co-owner of Big Sky Express, which makes same-day deliveries using smaller trucks and vans, is hesitant to drop the extra $5 fee he charges for a 200-pound delivery. And that's because he's dubious about diesel prices.

"Nothing has changed and the fuel prices have dropped so dramatically. I'm not complaining, but why?" he asked. "We don't want to overcharge our customers, but we don't want to change (fees) every month."

Smith, too, feels uneasy. He was on his way to Oregon with a load of Montana organic wheat when he filled up for $1.91 a gallon in Great Falls just before New Year's. But the next day, in Idaho, where fuel taxes are lower, the going rate was $2.50.

"It's just hard to figure it out," he said. "I haven't penciled it out since last summer. I don't have the nerve. I'm afraid I'd quit if I did."

And according to some in the business, many have. While businesses fret over surcharge fees, at least some sectors of the trucking industry have hit hard times.

Yvonne Halpin, a dispatcher at Montana Transport in Billings, said a number of "ma and pa" truckers went under before today's fuel savings could buoy them up. She's seen highs and lows before, but it's never been as bad as this past year.

"A lot of smaller ones, their fuel prices got ahead of their contracts," she said. "I've heard some sad stories. Some of the smaller ones just closed their doors."

In fact, Smith upgraded his own truck when a trucker friend decided that he'd had enough last March. Like quite a few drivers, the friend had let his rig go back to the finance company, and Smith was able to pick it up for a reasonable price.

But only a few months later, Smith's employer - the family trucking firm for which he'd worked the past decade - closed up shop after 60 years in business. Caught between exorbitant fuel costs and late payments from the breweries they hauled for, the company was stretched beyond its limits.

"I don't think anybody anticipated what happened," Smith said.

While figures tend to dispute anecdotal evidence - Tom Winfield, Montana's supervisor for the licensing and permitting of commercial vehicles, said numbers suggest that for every trucker who's abandoned the industry, another has signed on - Wilson at Whitewood said the industry has been transformed.

"The fuel prices have come down. That's certainly helped," he said. "But I think the damage has been done in the industry. It put a lot of carriers out of business. It's been brutal."

That trickle-down effect has also left its mark on truck-related businesses, like Ralph Becktold's Big Rig Truck and Trailer Repair. For years, he has serviced 18-wheelers, but by the end of this year, his once-steady business had dropped by half. When diesel was high, some companies started doing their own work, he said, and some drivers that had put off repairs haven't recovered - in spite of cheap fuel. At 70, Becktold is looking for someone to buy him out.

"But it's a poor time to do it," he said.

At Timberweld Manufacturing in Columbus, transportation manager Bruce Elledge was not quite so upbeat about his end of the business. More than fuel, he said, the economy as a whole has shaped its bottom line. When fuel prices skyrocketed, the company dug deep to find freight it could "back-haul." But that resource seems to have dried up because the market is saturated, he said.

At Big Sky Express, the economy had Emmons doing a 180. Before fuel prices shot through the roof, he had been contemplating expanding his routes. Instead, he has cut his business in half, eliminating his Bozeman run because deliveries there had slowed so much. Meanwhile, he's banking on his runs to Sheridan, Wyo.

"The economy hasn't taken a big dive down there," he said. "It's still business as usual."

Like Emmons, trucker Vernon "Tom" Gregoroff found prosperity "south of the border." Last spring, the Laurel-based trucker could see the slowdown coming. As the area's large trucking companies began competing for the smaller jobs, the smaller companies and independents were caught in the squeeze. He said he was poised to park his two rigs and call it good if diesel hit $5 a gallon.

That's when he heard about a construction job on a wind farm in Wyoming. He hauled a fifth wheel south, and he, his truck-driving wife, Luanne, his mother and his two dogs set up camp in the Cowboy State.

The job, which was supposed to last four to six weeks, kept him trucking for nearly six months. Because he only hauled onsite, his fuel consumption was drastically reduced. By early December, he had made enough to repair his third truck and buy a fourth.

"We had a really good year, which I don't think I would've if I'd stayed around here," he said. As he regroups, he's got his eye on a job in Arizona, and he has his hopes tied to the incoming administration.

"If the president-elect does get a lot of money for road building, that would really help," he said.

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