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Ventura County

Officials Driven to Reform County's Fleet

Environment: Supervisor plans a motion to gradually replace most of the 1,500 vehicles with already popular hybrids.

September 23, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While driving this summer from his Ventura home to an Oregon forest on vacation, county Supervisor Steve Bennett felt guilty about chugging down the road in his 1988 Mazda sedan.

Granted, he was still getting his money's worth out of a car with a whopping 250,000 miles on it, but how much carbon monoxide was the old beater spewing into the mountain air?

"It occurred to me that I needed to do something," Bennett said.

Although he will drive the Mazda "until it dies," Bennett plans to make a motion Tuesday that would authorize the purchase of several more low-emission vehicles, called hybrids, for the county. It already owns eight.

A hybrid vehicle has an electric motor that handles normal stop-and-go travel and initial highway acceleration and a gasoline- or diesel-powered internal combustion engine that kicks in when the vehicle gets to higher speeds. A computer system decides when to make the switch.

Bennett also hopes his colleagues will commit to a long-term goal of eventually replacing most of the county's 1,500-vehicle fleet with hybrids.

"They make a lot of sense here because Ventura County does not meet the federal standard for air quality," said Stan Cowen, an engineer at the county's Air Pollution Control District. "We're not as bad as L.A., but it's bad."

In fact, the federal Environmental Protection Agency rated Ventura County the 16th-smoggiest region in the nation--a little better than Dallas but slightly worse than Washington, D.C.--between 1997 and 1999.

In the two years since those figures were released, the county has improved its air quality with more stringent regulations and industry cleanup efforts, but vehicle emissions continue to be the leading cause of the area's bad air.

Tailpipes on trucks, cars, buses and motorcycles send about 13 1/2 tons of contaminants into the air daily, officials said. In contrast, the county's industrial facilities emit a combined total of 1 ton of toxic fumes a day.

"There has to be a desire to at least explore any technology out there that can help us reduce emissions," said Dennis Scamardo, the county's transportation manager. "It's just the right thing to do."

Bennett's plan has the support of County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston. Johnston and his wife own a Toyota Prius hybrid, and Johnston's county-issued car is also a hybrid. And at least two supervisors also drive county-issued hybrids, Bennett said.

"I guess you could say it's sort of a nerd-mobile," Johnston said with a laugh. "But it's really worth it in terms of performance and efficiency and the reduction in air pollution."

Nearly every city in the county uses an alternative vehicle, whether hybrid or powered by electricity, natural gas or a combination of natural gas and regular gasoline or diesel fuel, called a dual-fuel vehicle.

Because of the size of the county's entire transportation fleet, which includes 116 compact cars and dozens of sedans, utility trucks and vans, Bennett's plan would make Ventura County the area's leader in the use of "greener" energy sources for transportation.

"We've enjoyed a lot of success with our program," said Paul Starr, who handles the city of Oxnard's 600-vehicle fleet. "It's surprising that vehicles that are so energy-efficient can ride so nice."

The city started with two Prius hybrids two years ago. Now it has 14 such vehicles, most of which are used by fire chiefs, traffic enforcement officers and engineers.

In addition, the city has six dual-fuel cars and trucks. These vehicles, though, have proven somewhat disappointing because of the high cost of natural gas, which can equal the price of regular gasoline, and lack of efficiency, Starr said.

For example, a regular gasoline-powered car or truck might go 400 miles on 20 gallons, while an equivalent amount of natural gas might last only 200 miles.

In Camarillo, fleet services spokesman Steve Miller said the city has seven hybrid cars but future purchases were being debated because several nonhybrids are equally eco-friendly.

In Ventura, the city has one hybrid car and one electric vehicle.

Santa Paula has no alternative vehicles; but over the mountains in Ojai, the city offers four propane-fueled public trolleys, and city workers have access to several electric vehicles.

In Simi Valley, the city bus system and Dial-a-Ride vans all run on natural gas, but the city recently returned two leased electric vehicles after determining they were too costly and inconvenient to recharge.

Thousand Oaks officials haven't felt the same inconvenience. The city offers employees access to two electric vehicles, with five more on the way in the next few weeks. There are nine free recharging stations around town.

If Bennett's proposal passes, the county would start by replacing its nine Chevy Cavaliers with hybrids. The cost of a hybrid will be about $3,000 more than a Chevy, but officials expect to make up that difference with the hybrid's gas mileage--often more than 50 miles per gallon.

Over time, Bennett would like to see the county's entire compact car fleet traded in for hybrids. In addition to the eight hybrids, it has 39 natural gas cars and trucks and two electric vehicles.

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