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Environmentalists attack Texas PD for using Chevy Tahoes

Theodore Kim
The Dallas Morning News

PLANO, Texas – In an era of expensive gas and governments promising to “go green,” Plano officials in late 2006 came up with a counterintuitive solution to its aging fleet of police cars: gas-thirsty Chevrolet Tahoe SUVs.

The bigger, pricier vehicles, officials thought, might use more gas. But they also would provide more space for equipment, last longer and fetch more at resale.

City officials say they remain content with their decision a year later. And they report that the Tahoes get about the same gas mileage as the Ford Crown Victoria sedans that police have leaned on for years.

But some still question the switch to SUVs at a time when cities are urging conservation and departments elsewhere are finding ways to both keep the peace and cut gas consumption.

Moreover, critics take little comfort in knowing that Plano’s older Crown Victorias and newer Tahoes are equally wasteful. The two vehicles average a paltry nine to 10 mph in the field, largely because of time spent idling, city officials say.

Those numbers are comparable to the fuel efficiency of a 12-cylinder Lamborghini sports car. A typical Hummer H2, in fact, gets slightly better mileage.

“On many fronts, Plano has been at the cutting edge of municipal programs,” said Jeff Jacoby, Dallas staff director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit advocacy group. “So it’s striking that they would, on the one hand, be so proactive and so future-oriented and, on the other hand, would be moving backwards.”

Plano, Coppell, Frisco and the Park Cities are among cities nationally that have replaced their Crown Victorias with SUVs. Departments from California to Maine offer reasons that range from needing four-wheel drive in snowy conditions to boosting morale among rank-and-file officers.

“The patrolmen love them,” said Rick McDonald, Plano’s police spokesman.

Mainly, though, police are drawn to the extra cargo space, said Reid Choate, Plano’s fleet superintendent. Tahoes have about 60 cubic feet of cargo room, three times that of the Crown Victoria.

“With all of the equipment that we put into the cockpit upfront – computers, radar units, cameras – there is very limited space,” said Bruce Glasscock, assistant city manager for Plano.

The trend toward SUVs, however, has collided with efforts in some of the nation’s largest cities to slash fuel costs and carbon emissions by purchasing hybrid patrol vehicles, increasing bike patrols and taking other measures.

Boston and San Francisco use some hybrid SUVs, while New York City is testing electric scooters that can go as fast as 60 mph. Some Florida cities, including Boca Raton, have cut fuel costs by switching administrative police staff to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Moreover, carmakers like Toyota are reportedly developing new hybrid police vehicles.

Balancing conservation with public safety has proved particularly awkward for Plano given that leaders have sought to burnish the city’s green image by buying low-emissions vehicles for other departments, cutting energy use and touting its recycling initiatives. City police also use bike patrols.

At the same time, the City Council has spent nearly $1.7 million on more than 50 Tahoes for police. That includes an agreement to purchase 23 earlier this month. (Police Tahoes cost around $30,000, while Crown Victorias are $22,500.)

Plano government, including the police, typically uses about 1 million gallons of diesel and unleaded gas each year, Mr. Choate said. While consumption has held steady in recent years, annual city fuel costs doubled to $2.8 million from $1.4 million in 2003.

Mr. Jacoby, of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, said law enforcement agencies often are not held to the same conservation standards because public safety is viewed as a necessity.

But he said public safety departments can play a key role in improving air quality and conserving energy.

Plano’s police force consumes more than one-quarter of the city government’s fuel.

“It takes a concerted effort from all areas – government, the private sector, citizens –to create the sustainable city that all of us envision,” Mr. Jacoby said.

Others agree. “Naturally, we would want municipalities to purchase the best performing vehicles for their needs, but vehicles that are also the most fuel efficient,” said Chris Smith, a spokeswoman for Environmental Defense, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Mr. Choate said the upsides of the Tahoes – space, safety, durability and resale value – far outweigh the poor gas mileage.

He also points out that Plano’s Tahoes can use E85, a fuel that consists mostly of cleaner-burning ethanol. As of yet, none of the vehicles has used ethanol. Only one Plano gas station offers E85, Mr. Choate said.

Plano Councilman Lee Dunlap said he values public safety over conservation. He added, though, “If we can find energy savings without sacrificing safety, we should examine that.”

Copyright 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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