Rising Fuel Prices Ripple Through the Flathead

As regular gasoline prices hover around $4 per gallon in Montana, business owners and community members are feeling the impacts

By Maggie Dresser
A motorist refuels at a Conoco gas station in Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since Rick Wood opened Western Automotive Transport in Kalispell 37 years ago, where his employees regularly drive car carriers to places like Helena, Spokane and Seattle, his customers historically have never asked him about surcharges.

But since the average price of diesel fuel in Montana has increased by more than $1.50 in the last year, and now hovers around $5 per gallon, Wood’s customers like the Kalispell Automotive Group and other local car dealerships have all inquired about a fuel surcharge.

“We didn’t bring it up, which is really unusual,” Wood said.

After decades in the contract carrier business, Wood has a good working relationship with his customers and he normally doesn’t add a surcharge for anything unless it’s absolutely necessary.

“We are going to implement a surcharge next month that goes directly to the cost of fuel,” Wood said. “We’ve been in business long enough and we have loyal customers that understand.”

Fuel prices are just one of many challenges Wood has faced in the last two years. Between inflation and the workforce shortage, he’s about to increase his employee’s wages by 10%. The lack of inventory is also putting a strain on his customers, boosting prices even higher.

“We’re in kind of a unique situation,” Wood said. “We have as much business as we can handle. It’s terribly hard finding employees, not only for the drivers of our car carriers, but mechanics and welders are all pretty scarce. There’s no end in sight for us.”

At Glacier Precast Concrete, owner Erik Powell transports cured septic tanks, retaining walls and other road infrastructure from his facility in Kalispell.

While most of his customers are local, Powell also transports concrete to Eureka, Broadus and occasionally to northern Idaho and Canada, and he recently increased his transportation price by 18%, or $1 per mile.

“For the most part, people are pretty understanding,” Powell said. “They see the news and customers are willing to pay for it.”

A few of Powell’s customers have been apprehensive to continue doing business and some are waiting to see if fuel prices go down, but he says the demand has typically remained high.

As business owners who consume large amounts of fuel ask their customers to help bear some of the burden, directors at the Flathead Food Bank and North Valley Food Bank are noticing more clients seeking resources to offset the strain of inflation.

North Valley Food Bank Executive Director Sophie Albert has seen steady demand since mid-January and there were 15 new households at the food bank last week.

“I think that’s unique and it’s probably due to the high gas prices,” Albert said.

Flathead Food Bank Executive Director Jamie Quinn can’t tell if the rising demand is solely due to rising fuel prices or general inflation, but she suspects both are taking a toll on people.

“The food prices have gone up significantly on top of gas,” Quinn said. “It’s a combination of the general inflation of food and everything else that’s been a huge impact on people. We see an average of about five to 10 new people each shift.”

Quinn frequently hears customers worrying about making ends meet every month, and as fuel prices continue to hover around $4 per gallon locally, she doesn’t foresee anything changing soon.

As employee wages rise with inflation, Quinn says the senior citizens and disabled individuals who come to the food bank are struggling the most.

“If you come to the food bank and you’re disabled or a senior, your income isn’t going to change,” Quinn said. “The hardest thing is we see wages go up but we are not seeing social security or disability go up. You’re not going to be able to budget your way out of this and inflation hurts the most at risk.”

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