Orlando-area agencies shun hybrid vehices

By Mary Shanklin and Dan Tracy
The Orlando Sentinel
Related: "Hypermiling" the law enforcement way

ORLANDO — They get the best gas mileage and belch the fewest pollutants, but hybrid vehicles have been slow to win over local governments.

An Orlando Sentinel review of public records from nearly 90 cities, counties and other agencies in Central Florida found that most own no hybrids -- even though their fleets often are comprised of hundreds of large cars, trucks and SUVs.

In fact, only three agencies have embraced hybrids with any zeal, operating nearly 80 percent of the 112 publicly owned hybrids.

This during a time that soaring fuel prices and rising worries about global warming have spurred more and more consumers to buy cars that rely at least partly on electric-powered motors.

Local agencies have instead stockpiled some of the worst gas guzzlers and polluters on the road, from Chevrolet Tahoes to Ford F-250 pickups.

Officials say they have been wary of purchasing hybrids because of higher prices, difficulty buying them in large numbers and concerns about their reliability. Some also maintain that a hybrid option simply isn't available to meet their specific needs, although new models may change that.

Many of the concerns and claims are based on misconceptions, said Philip Reed, an editor at automotive-research service Edmunds.com. "Hybrid technology is far ahead of where people think it is," Reed said.

But the officials who make the car-buying decisions still aren't convinced the pros outweigh the potential cons.

"Sometimes you don't want to take public money to start experimenting," said Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson, who drives a gas-powered 2007 Tahoe. "You don't want to be behind the curve, but you don't want to be too far ahead of it."

The hybrid debate

Automobiles are the second-leading source of greenhouse gases behind power plants. The carbon dioxide created by cars collects in the atmosphere, forming a blanket that traps the sun's heat and causes the planet to get hotter.

Hybrids employ a battery-powered motor and a gasoline engine that run cleaner than traditional cars.

A 2007 Toyota Prius, for example, spits out 4 tons of greenhouse gases annually. By comparison, a similar-sized Toyota Corolla that gets up to 41 mpg emits 6.3 tons.

A 2007 Ford Explorer—a popular choice in local government fleets — gives off 11.4 tons a year. That's 4 tons more pollution than a comparable — but much more rare — hybrid Toyota Highlander.

The region's biggest booster of hybrids is the South Florida Water Management District, which serves parts of Central Florida. The district owns the most hybrids in Central Florida: 38.

Other than Orange County and Altamonte Springs, no other government that responded to the Sentinel has reported having more than seven hybrids.

The water district's director, Carol Wehle, drives a 2007 Highlander SUV hybrid that gets an estimated 26 mpg in city driving.

"It handles just as well and it has the same acceleration as a nonhybrid car. I was surprised and pleased by that," Wehle said.

Orlando and Orange County announced last fall that they intended to buy smaller vehicles and hybrids whenever possible. Orlando has its first four hybrids on order.

"It's an attitude change and giving a value to your energy use," said Bryan Lucas, who manages Orange County's fleet of nearly 2,000 vehicles.

Can hybrids do the job?

But some government officials, particularly those in law enforcement, argue that most hybrids are too small or lack enough pickup for pursuit.

Tahoes, for instance, come with an 8-cylinder engine and seat up to nine, two more than the largest hybrid, the Highlander.

Chevy and GMC are about to change that equation by coming out with even-bigger hybrid SUVs: nine-passenger versions of the Tahoe and Yukon that also are four-wheel-drive and are expected to get 20 mpg.

The Tahoe driven by Johnson is not a hybrid but is capable of running on flexible fuels. He uses regular gasoline because it's readily available. He said he intends to stick with his Tahoe because he needs a four-wheel-drive vehicle that can maneuver in remote locations.

"It allows me to get to where I have to get to," he said, adding, "Sometimes you can drive a Lincoln Continental. Another day, you couldn't get there with a tank."

As for switching to a hybrid or a smaller vehicle, Johnson said, "That's beyond the question. I haven't hit that point yet."

Officials in Seminole County also remain skeptical. The county, which has two Prius and four Ford Escape hybrids, conducted a study this spring and determined that the better mileage of the vehicles did not justify the extra cost.

But the report did not consider whether the reduced emissions of hybrids should factor into buying decisions and also didn't include resale value and maintenance costs.

'We are converts'

In reality, hybrids so far have earned high marks for maintenance costs and trade-in values. And other reasons often cited for not buying hybrids are fading: Acceleration is generally comparable to similar-sized models, and more four-wheel-drive and supersized versions are becoming available.

King County, Wash., began to replace retiring vehicles with hybrids in 2001 after determining that fuel and maintenance savings would justify the initial extra costs within five years. The county's hybrid fleet has grown to more than 400 cars, buses, small trucks and even a bucket truck since then.

"We have looked at it, and it makes good business sense in addition to good environmental sense," said King County fleet administrator Windell Mitchell. "We are converts."

As the price of gas climbs, the higher cost of buying a hybrid will be offset by annual savings more quickly.

Speed and passenger comfort is better than expected in hybrids, said Reed, who is the senior consumer-advice editor at Edmunds.com. The Prius, he said, "will do everything that a [Ford] Taurus will do."

Altamonte Springs police Lt. Jerry Warriner has become a believer.

"This is a great car for me," said Warriner, who supervises detectives and gave up an unmarked Impala last year for a Prius.

He said he gets as much as 52 mpg and points to the rear hatchback, where he stores his police gear with room to spare. "In detective work," he said, "I don't see any drawback at all."

The Prius is the hybrid most often purchased by local governments. Its average annual fuel bill is about half that of the Taurus, which at 20 mpg gets the best mileage of any car local agencies have bought in any significant numbers.

Policy an obstacle

But there's one obstacle many hybrids, such as the Prius and the Highlander, can't overcome.

Many governments — Orlando is a prime example — will buy only American-made cars, which often limits selections to vehicles that consume more gas.

"They [American car builders] are outdated in terms of fuel economy, and they are way behind manufacturers, particularly the Japanese," Reed said.

Tavares City Manager John Drury, who is provided a four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer, said he would like to see more hybrids in government fleets. But he admittedly hasn't pushed for them in his city.

"What needs to happen is a study reflecting the training and other costs associated with hybrids," Drury said. "If the study shows that's the most cost-effective way to do business, and I'm sure as the vehicles become more inexpensive, you'll see more cities like the city of Tavares go to these vehicles."

Copyright 2008 The Orlando Sentinel

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