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Winston-Salem tries to make fleet more fuel efficient

by Amy Kingsley

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the flow of gasoline to North Carolina – most of which came from a pipeline originating in the Gulf Coast – dried up, causing shortages and skyrocketing fuel costs. For the weeks until the pipeline returned to full function, city governments in both Greensboro and Winston-Salem adopted austere fuel conservation guidelines limiting nonessential trips by city staff.

Although both municipalities gradually loosened their restrictions on vehicles, Winston-Salem city officials used the opportunity to reexamine aspects of the fuel use and vehicle acquisition policies. General Services Director Sandy Barfoot said the motivating factors behind policy changes involved more than fiscal concerns; environmentally conscious citizens had also asked the city to look into low emissions vehicles.

In 2005, the city of Winston-Salem spent more than it had budgeted for fuel, the price of which had increased from about $1 per gallon in January to $2.38 by the fall. The city council and fleet department set a goal to reduce fuel consumption by 10 percent. So far, departments have cumulatively curbed their use by a little more than 8 percent, Barfoot said.

“We’ve tried not to cut services but we’ve been pretty efficient with most of our routes,” Barfoot said.

In April 2006, Winston-Salem adopted a “Vehicle Fuel Management and Vehicle Acquisition Program” aimed at codifying the specifications for buying and maintaining the most fuel-efficient fleet. Around the same time, the city bought three new Honda Civic hybrids. Soon they will purchase three Nissan Sentras and then compare the purchase, maintenance and fuel costs to determine which model best suits the city’s needs.

Greensboro bought the first of several hybrid vehicles a few years ago, around the same time transportation officials started mixing biodiesel into fuel for trucks and buses. But although the city was ahead of the curve – and rising gas prices – when it adopted those measures, Greensboro is behind Winston-Salem when it comes to making that policy official.

“We’re in the process of working on one now,” said Fleet Manager Gary Smith.

He has assembled a Fleet Advisory Board from representatives of several city departments that will recommend guidelines for vehicle purchases. It will likely be similar to Winston-Salem’s policy, which states that vehicles purchased by the city will be the most fuel-efficient and produce the lowest emissions in their class. Vehicles must also be cost-competitive, according to the guidelines.

“In the last five or six years we’ve been a little bit more flexible with the kinds of cars we allowed people to buy,” said Greensboro City Manager Mitchell Johnson.

Both cities have similar policies when it comes to making the existing fleets more fuel efficient. Maintenance schedules are strictly adhered to and include regular oil changes and tire pressure checks. Both cities discourage unnecessary trips and excessive idling.

The two cities use a similar amount of diesel fuel. Winston-Salem trucks consumed 1.4 million gallons last year compared to Greensboro’s 1.5 million. Johnson and Smith said departments in Greensboro have already limited fuel costs as much as possible without cutting services.

“When it comes time to reduce we find ourselves in a bit of a bind,” Johnson said.

Smith added that although city services had increased over the past several years, the annual amount of fuel consumption had remained steady.

Winston-Salem’s vehicle fuel management program calls for annual fuel conservation plans to identify specific goals for fuel reduction and track those monthly. The city manager is also charged with setting an annual goal for the percentage of alternative fuel or hybrid vehicles in the city fleet.

Johnson said that some city vehicles couldn’t be swapped for smaller sedans or hybrids.

“If you need a big truck that can haul debris or push a snowplow then there’s not really any getting around it,” he said.

He also raised concerns about trying to limit patrolling by police officers.

“I’m very uncomfortable with reducing police patrol activities,” Johnson said. “I feel like it is more important to just pay for the fuel.”

In Winston-Salem police vehicles are also exempted from the alternative fuel/hybrid goal.

Despite attempts to reduce fuel consumption, the cities have limited power on the impact of fluctuating gas prices on their budgets.

“These budgets are put together a year ahead of schedule,” Smith said. “So last year we had no idea how prices would change with Katrina. Before that, the prices have always been stable.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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