Steamboat Springs Paul Draper gulped hard Aug. 30 when no one responded to his request for quotes on an order of a few thousand gallons of gasoline and diesel.
Draper, director of the Routt County Road and Bridge Department, orders fuel for the county's entire fleet of vehicles, including heavy equipment used by his department and smaller cars and trucks used by other county employees.
"We can't do without fuel," Draper said. "I'm not willing to contemplate going without fuel."
The county never was in danger of running out of fuel, and the need for price quotes for Draper's request was resolved by Thursday; however, the experience of going into the marketplace to buy diesel and gasoline and getting turned down definitely got Draper's attention. It served as a reminder of just how far out on the supply chain Northwest Colorado is during a time of national emergency.
When Draper sought quotes for fuel at the end of August, a day after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, he had anticipated a reduction in that region's refinery capacity. Draper's intent was to top off the county's four 10,000-gallon tanks to guard against short supply as well as hedge against future price increases.
Draper found that it isn't national fuel shortages but the competitive marketplace that could affect Routt County this fall.
"People had fuel, but there were no tankers to bring it to us," Draper said. "We were told that there were bigger markups in California, and all of the tankers were headed there."
Draper turned to three local suppliers last week and obtained the diesel and gasoline he needed through Trevenen Oil distributing in Craig, Bear River Valley Co-op in Hayden and Corkle Oil Co. (affiliated with Weston Oil) in Steamboat.
On Monday, he will face a new type of fuel challenge. Representatives of Precision Excavating, the contractors working the reconstruction of Routt County Road 27, have asked the county to pay a fuel surcharge to cover the rising cost of diesel.
Diesel by the bus full
Consumers who think they've experienced sticker shock at gas pumps this month should be in Jonathan Flint's shoes. Flint, operations manager for Steamboat Springs Transit, was preparing Thursday to take delivery on 7,300 gallons of No. 2 diesel. The bill came to $19,345.
The good news is that the diesel delivered to the transit garage on 13th Street was dyed red, signifying that it was tax free to city government -- a savings of 40.3 cents a gallon. The challenging news is that within city limits, Steamboat's bus system is free to riders. That means that as Transit Director George Krawzoff plans his 2006 budget, he must anticipate spending more for the approximately 100,000 gallons of diesel SST buses consume annually.
"Two years ago, it was right at a dollar (a gallon)," Flint said. "We saw it increase fairly steadily to $1.60 until it increased 50 to 60 cents a gallon in the last few weeks. It looks like it's actually going to go down soon."
Gas prices have been volatile this summer, and the city waits until the afternoon, before its diesel is loaded into a tanker, to ask two local distributorships to fax it bids.
The city orders gasoline for its vehicle fleet separately from its transit system.
Public Works Director Jim Weber said that, like Draper and the county, his department looks for opportunities to top off its tanks because of the volatile market. The Public Works Department purchases gasoline for the Steamboat Springs Police Department, the Water and Sewer departments and the Parks, Open Space and Recreation department.
With winter rapidly approaching, the fuel costs associated with snow removal are a big deal for the city and county. Weber said the task of budgeting for fuel is further complicated because winter is divided into two fiscal years.
The first portion of winter already is accounted for in the 2005 budget. He's preparing for October's City Council budget hearings but has to begin negotiating soon with private contractors for snow-removal services for city parking lots. In addition to using its own equipment to plow snow from city streets, Steamboat relies on a fleet of privately owned dump trucks to periodically haul snow away from parking lots such as those on Eighth Street and at Howelsen Ice Arena.
Time will tell how often snow must be hauled this winter, but the contractors must be locked in this fall, and their hourly fees undoubtedly will anticipate the rising cost of fuel.
"We paid about $65 an hour last year, and it may be substantially more next year," Weber said.
Buses seem a better option
The Steamboat Springs Transit system consumes the least amount of diesel during fall, which, for SST, begins today with a shift to its new bus schedule. The bus system uses three buses during fall instead of the four that run during summer. As it did all summer, SST will continue to operate two regional buses daily between Steamboat and Craig.
There are signs that rising fuel prices have made buses a more attractive option for residents, Flint said.
"Typically, we would be happy with a one- or two-point increase (in ridership) over the summer," Flint said. "We've been up 5 percent all summer. Five percent is fantastic."
Commuters from Craig also are showing more interest in the city's new regional buses.
"Anecdotally, the drivers have been seeing 10 to 15 new faces every day in just the last week to 10 days," Flint said.
Routt County is budgeted to spend about $280,000 on gas and diesel this year. It's on pace to exceed its $99,000 budget for its motor pool. There's a little more room to breathe in the heavy equipment pool, for which Draper is budgeted for $181,700 and had spent $102,454 as of Sept. 2.
Draper said he's entering the busy ramp-up to winter and that delaying projects to save on fuel isn't an option. His crews are preparing to haul gravel to North Routt County, where several stretches of Routt County Road 129 have a new coat of asphalt. The gravel will be used to make smoother shoulders on the edge of the pavement.
"Right now, there's a 2-inch drop-off on the edge of the asphalt," Draper said. "We have to do it. It's a life-safety issue."
-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail email@example.com