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City Council Unplugged

Sierra Club urges city to use more hybrid cars


When Wyatt Earp's colleagues need to transport suspects or serve subpoenas, they're likely to hop in a gas-electric hybrid car. As fleet manager of the sheriff's department in Marion County, Fla., as well as a descendent of the Wild West gunslinger, Earp for years has been singing the praises of fuel-efficient vehicles. "We try not to be dependent on foreign oil, and I think more government entities should look at it that way," Earp said. "Our sheriff's and our chief's position (is) it's our responsibility to save as much money as we possibly can."

Each year, a number of cities and counties join a chorus of local governments that, like Marion County, are trying to meet federal air quality standards, save money and set an environmentally conscious example. Now the Charlotte area Sierra Club chapter plans to prod City Council to join that refrain.

"I know that is a direction they're headed in," said Christa Wagner of the Sierra Club's Central Piedmont Group, which is gathering residents' signatures on petitions and postcards urging the purchase of hybrid vehicles. "But they're not there yet, so we feel like some gentle pressure is appropriate."

Will they receive the response they're seeking?

Council members who spoke with Creative Loafing indicated they support the idea — at least in theory.

"It's got to be economically driven," said Don Lochman, a Republican who represents south Charlotte. "I think it's desirable, and I think it's a program that we should put in place. But without knowing more detail, I'm not sure at what pace." With a $12 million budget deficit, Lochman said, this year isn't a promising time for new initiatives.

Warren Turner, a Democrat who represents the South End, said council members this year discussed hybrid cars at previous budget retreats. But members also want more information about how the vehicles will save money over time, he said. "It's always an economic issue for us," Turner said.

And Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, an at-large Democrat, said he's "hopeful" the percentage of hybrid cars in the city's fleet will increase.

"We want to make sure we're doing all we can to mitigate all those things that have us looking not in the best of lights," said Cannon, who is running for mayor.

"Not in the best of lights" is one way of referring to Charlotte's air-quality reputation. Last year, the region made the Environmental Protection Agency's bad-air list, a designation that can mean less federal money and hamper new job creation. The American Lung Association ranked the metro area as having the 14th worst ozone pollution in the nation — worse even than Atlanta's air. Those dubious honors have spurred a lot of talk about improving air quality. And using more fuel-efficient vehicles — and driving less — are two major ways to do that.

Hybrid vehicles operate with a combination of electricity and gasoline. At low speeds, hybrids run on electricity. At greater speeds, gas power kicks in. While they generally have a higher sticker price than traditional gas-powered cars, they use less fuel.

A hybrid Toyota Prius, for example, can get about 60 miles per gallon of gas on city streets, while a Ford Crown Victoria (long a vehicle of choice for law enforcement and other government agencies) gets about 18 mpg, according to the EPA. By another comparison, a Ford Taurus can get about 20 miles per gallon, while a hybrid Honda Civic averages well over twice that. (Actual mileage may be lower, however: 2002 Toyota Priuses used in Marion County averaged 36 to 45 miles per gallon, according to department data.)

"A lot of times, critics will come back and say, 'Well, you can't do the job of a large pick-up truck with a little Prius. We understand that," said Chris Buchanan, the local Sierra Club's chairman. "But there are now ...pick-up trucks and SUVs that are hybrids."

Buchanan says the city could go a long way to setting an example if it committed to phasing in cleaner vehicles.

"It's a small difference, but there's not a practical solution that I know of that will be the magical solution," Buchanan said. "Small-step solutions such as hybrid cars, cleaner cars in general are great steps along the way to cleaner air and better air quality."

The city now uses four hybrid Honda Civics in its fleet of about 3,000 vehicles. David Friday, an environmental program manager for the city's Business Support Services Department, said for the past year he has reminded department chiefs that they can consider hybrid cars when seeking new vehicles.

"It really is a department decision whether they want to fund the extra money, and city funding is pretty tight right now," Friday said. "The good thing is they do save money over the long haul."

Mecklenburg County, like the city, uses a handful of hybrid cars. But the county in 2004 signed an environmental leadership policy, which is why Wagner said the environmental group is focusing its campaign in support of hybrid vehicles on city officials instead.

Laura Cummings, environmental policy administrator of Mecklenburg's Land Use and Environmental Services Agency, said county departments are advised to consult a green vehicle guide that ranks cars based on fuel efficiency and air-quality effects. They aren't required to choose hybrid cars when replacing old vehicles but are "strongly encouraged" to consider environmental effects.

In Marion County, Fla, about six years passed after the initial purchase for the sheriff's department to break even on buying hybrids. But that pace has since quickened, Earp said.

"When you're looking at a Prius that gets about (up to) 50 miles per gallon, and the other vehicles which get in the low 20s, you can see with today's gas prices it's not going to take very long to recoup your investment."

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