Prius takes trip, more miles for money

Two Sierra Club members, one driving a bulky GMC Yukon SUV, the other a high-mileage Toyota Prius, stopped off in Tallahassee Friday to call attention to America’s dependency on foreign oil and plead for protection of the country’s most pristine wildlife areas.

Joseph Murphy and Darden Rice, on the fifth leg of a winding road trip from Tampa to Washington, held court in the parking lot across from the Black Dog Café on Lake Ella.

Singing the economic and environmental praises of the Prius, a compact hybrid car with an internal combustion engine and electric motor, Rice pointed out the discrepancies in money spent and fuel used by the two cars during the first four stops of the trip.

“Over 700 miles, the Prius has used about 18 gallons of gas. That gas has cost us $40,” Rice said. “The SUV has needed about 45 gallons, which has run about $90.”

The traveling duo’s message of conservation reached the ears of Leon County Commissioner Bob Rackleff, who later took the Prius for a test-drive on North Monroe Street.

When asked if the county would be receptive to adding more fuel-efficient vehicles for its fleet, Rackleff said that he thought there was a compelling financial case for such a purchase.

“The operating costs are much lower and it helps the bottom line,” Rackleff said. “There’s an early county budget briefing in a month. It will be a good time to bring it forward.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site has listed the 2001 Prius’ average mileage at 52 mpg in the city and 45 on the highway. EPA officials certified the vehicle as a super ultra low emission vehicle, due to its low output of smog forming exhaust fumes.

In Florida, the Sierra Club has been waging a “Green Fleets” campaign, pressing state and local government agencies to incorporate cleaner vehicles like the Prius into their fleets.

The Martin County Sheriff’s Department in central Florida touts itself as the first public agency in the country to purchase hybrid engine vehicles. Captain Robert Pryor said his sheriff, Robert Browder, had been looking for ways to become more efficient with the spiraling fuel costs everywhere.

Now being used to serve civil papers and by detectives making contacts, the department’s 11 Prius’ produced savings right off the top, according to Pryor.

“We usually pay $22,000 to $24,000 for a new vehicle. The Prius’ were purchased at about $17,000 a piece,” Pryor said. Pryor added that the cars get 60 mpg in town and didn’t require much modification.

“We gave each one a new paint job and we installed radios,” Pryor said. “Otherwise, it’s the way you’d get it right off the line.”

One state agency has followed Martin County’s lead. Each of the Department of Environmental Protection’s six district offices will have a hybrid vehicle at its disposal in the near future.

Cameron Cooper, a program administrator for the deputy secretary of regulatory programs, said that the agency’s Tallahassee office should have its Prius within two weeks.

“Once we found out we could get our hands on them, we immediately pursued them,” Cooper said.

Cooper emphasized that, from the department’s standpoint, the vehicles would produce less emissions and get better mileage than the Ford Taurus’ currently used.

“It’s one way of encouraging others to do the same,” Cooper said.

Team Toyota sales representative Ralph Moss said DEP officials have made several visits to his dealership on West Tennessee Street to survey the Prius’ capabilities. Moss said the car gets a lot of attention from curious shoppers and noted that there were 36,000 Prius’ on the road in Asia the four-door hit the American market.

“This is a proven fuel-economy green car that is being mass-produced today, not something that is five or 10 years away from happening,’ Moss said.