Switch to Toyota Prius hybrids will save tax payers $21,000 a year on gas, county says.
Alison Miller - Vail Daily - Mar. 13, 2007
The new fleet of environmentally friendly Toyota Prius Hybrid cars during their public unveiling at the Eagle County Building in Eagle.
EAGLE COUNTY — None of the Eagle County employees who will be driving one of the county’s new Toyota Prius hybrids will argue that they aren’t good for the environment, but some feel the cars may not benefit the users as much as they do the planet.
The county has replaced half its fleet — including cars, vans and sport utility vehicles — with the Prius in an “on going effort to show the community that Eagle County cares about the environment,” Communications Director Justin Finestone said.
To convey the “Eco-friendly” message to the public, 12 of the 20 cars are green.
“Other than this being our way of being friendly to the enviroment, this is kind of like us sticking up our finger at gas-guzzling SUVs,” County Commissioner Arn Menconi said jokingly.
Not everyone is as excited as Finestone is, and worries over the more practical aspects of the car were expressed by some county employees at the Prius fleet’s unveiling on Tuesday.
As county employees gathered around for a up-close look at the car, one employee who didn't want to give her name said she was concerned about how safe the vehicle is.
“I wonder what would happen in an accident, especially with the battery being in the trunk of the car,” the woman said. “They are small and if it gets hit by any of the large trucks or huge SUVs on the road, that could be really bad.”
How safe it is to have the battery in the trunk of the car was cause for concern among other finance department employees.
Their worries are not completely unfounded, said Steve Zeder from Big Horn Toyota, the dealership that won the bid to provide the 20 Priuses.
“If the battery of the Prius is damaged in an accident, emergency crews need to be aware the battery is hazardous material,” Zeder said. “That is the same for any other car, but it is probably more likely to be a factor with the Prius because being hit from behind on the rear side is more common.”
As a passenger who is not responsible for cleaning up accidents, the car is as safe to drive as any other car — it was given an overall safety rating of four stars out of five by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Board, Zeder said.
Safety aside, Sam Collins of the county’s technology support department said it will be “a stretch, if at all possible” to fit work equipment into the car.
“As a tech guy I think the car is cool because it is the latest technology for cars, but as an employee I think the change will be difficult because there is not a lot of room for the equipment we transport,” Collins said.
“Plus, one of our guys is six-foot-six and he won’t fit in the car,” Collins added.
The technology department has nine offices in the valley from Vail to El Jebel, and daily trips are made by employees to the offices, Collins said.
But making the trips should not be difficult on most days, even in the snow, fleet Manager Gusty Kanakis said.
“Unless there is a foot of fresh snow covering the roads, the Prius should perform just fine and maybe better than what they are driving now,” Kanakis said. “The cars have traction and skid control, and they come with anti-lock brakes. Snow-packed roads and ice should not be an issue to drive on.”
The commissioners will each receive fully loaded versions of the Prius that come with an iPod compatible stereo systems, hands-free cell phone capability and a six disc compact disc player, Collins said. The technology department was given a top of the line model as well.
“It is a really cool car, but I think we got the top model because we have to learn how to work everything so that we can help the commissioners work theirs,” Collins said. “Arn (Menconi) already asked me if I knew how to link his cell phone to the car through the hands free option. I guess I better learn it fast.”
The switch to the Prius fleet cost the county $462,000, and was made after doing a thorough examination of the county’s other options, Kanaskis said.
“We looked at the diesel cars, other hybrids like the Honda hybrid, and we also looked at sport utility hybrids,” Kanakis said. “None of them gave us as much bang for the buck in terms of gas savings, safety, price and maintenance costs. We will save about $21,000 a year on just gas.”
If the cars show a dramatic improvement on gas savings, and work well for employees, the rest of the fleet could be replaced within two years, Kanaskis said.
“The cars use less fuel and therefore pollute less,” Kanakis said. “Overall, the car puts out about 85 percent less pollution than other cars. It also gets about 60 miles to the gallon around town, and 50 miles per gallon on the highway as compared to the average car that only gets 18.”
More than wanting to promote public awareness, the county made the switch primarily to reduce gas usage and emissions, Kanakis said.
“The color green is universally accepted as an environmentally friendly color,” Finestone said, “and we want this move to the Prius to really be a visible signal to the public that we are concerned on a county level about the environment.”